Dr. Jeffrey Joy, Postdoctoral Fellow at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver likes the big picture, but the small one is pretty interesting too. As an evolutionary geneticist, Dr. Joy analyzes the genetic relationships between viral variants of HIV and the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), across the Canadian population, within populations, and within single individuals. Through examination of multiple scales and their connection, he believes we can make broader inferences about the processes shaping the epidemic.
The rapid mutation rates of HIV and HCV mean that genetic changes accrue on an observable timescale (weeks to months). By inferring phylogenetic trees viral lineages can be traced back to common ancestors, and therefore, to a specific moment in time, a property that facilitates inferences about the epidemiological processes structuring epidemics.
Dr. Joy is currently conducting several studies looking at the genetics of HIV from a subset of the Canadian population. As part of HIV clinical care, samples of the virus are taken from HIV+ patients in British Columbia and Dr. Joy is working with anonymized sequences sampled from over 7700 patients. “British Columbia has one of the most comprehensively sampled epidemics in the world, and we can put these data together with data from across Canada to make broader inferences about both the external influences on the BC epidemic and the Canadian HIV epidemic as a whole,” says Dr. Joy. Changes in viral genetics over time in a population and in a person allow inferences to be drawn about the prevalence, incidence, and demographics of new infections in the past and present. Dr. Joy’s most recent work details, from a genetic perspective, the history of the British Columbia HIV epidemic among various at risk populations. A surprising wealth of epidemiological information is contained in the viral sequence data, and Dr. Joy continues to extract more information about the epidemic as a whole including determining geographic areas where drug resistance is common and the influence of HIV treatment and the suppression of viral load on transmission rates within a community.
When it comes to the small picture, Dr. Joy zooms in from the population level to a single individual. The HIV virus mutates within a person, and an individual will carry numerous variants. These variants may occupy different cellular reservoirs (tissue types/cell types) in the body. “How the virus compartmentalizes within a patient is something we don’t have as much information about as we do the larger scale population dynamics,” explains Dr. Joy. “We don’t know how different HIV population genetic parameters within a person operate to shape the different reservoirs. We’d like to better understand which reservoirs within the body the viruses circulating in the blood plasma originate.” This research has important implications for understanding how drugs affect the virus in different cellular reservoirs of the body, since drugs vary in their ability to enter different body compartments.
It’s the wealth of information in these data sets that Dr. Joy finds inspiring. “There are mountains of data to work with, and I like the practical utility analyzing these data has for both population level public health and influencing treatment at an individual level”, says Dr. Joy. “For me, the questions are simultaneously interesting and useful to other people.” He hopes that the work he is doing can contribute broadly to the efforts to control the epidemic. “At the population level I hope we can help to identify populations where focused intervention can be most effective, in areas where the epidemic is increasing.” Dr. Joy explains. “Within an individual, I hope that the analyses we are doing are going to make treatments better and help us understand how to target the virus more effectively.”
The Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR), the CIHR HIV/AIDS Research Initiative, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), the CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network (CTN) and the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) Research and Development Alliance Coordinating Office (ACO) would like to congratulate Dr. Joy for his significant contributions to our understanding of HIV. His work is part of a larger Canadian research effort that is making a difference in the lives of those affected by HIV in Canada and around the world.