“Since my middle school years, I’ve wanted to be a scientist” says Derek Clouthier, recipient of a CAHR/CIHR Doctoral award in Basic Sciences. It was during his undergraduate studies in Biochemistry that Derek realized it was the human immune system and how it responded to viral infections that really intrigued him. Derek is now following that interest while pursuing his PhD at the University of Toronto. His PhD supervisor, Dr. Tania Watts, works with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) in mice; a virus that elicits a strikingly similar immune response in mice as HIV does in humans. Derek admits, “studying chronic viral infection in particular wasn’t initially what I wanted to pursue in graduate studies; at first I sought to study the immune system in the context of malignancy or immunological memory to viral infection.” But as Derek points out, working with LCMV and HIV is the perfect opportunity to learn about how the immune system combats chronic viral infections.
During an acute viral infection, the immune system sustains a T-cell response until the pathogen is cleared. However, during a chronic infection (like HIV) the immune system eventually dials down in order to avoid inflammation that can cause collateral damage to un-infected cells. Though this is an important part of the immune response to prevent further damage, the unfortunate result is that the virus persists. In the case of HIV, this chronic infection leads to serious health effects and co-morbidity. Derek and Dr. Watts suggest that stimulating the immune system to sustain its response could significantly reduce viral burden when used in combination with anti-retroviral therapy (ART) in HIV+ individuals.
In order to follow this line of thinking, Derek is focusing on a co-stimulatory molecule called GITR (the ‘glucocorticoid-induced tumour necrosis factor receptor’). Previous studies have shown that GITR augments T-cell survival and cytokine production (keeping the immune system rolling) but its role in chronic infections is not well understood. Derek suspects that by replicating the engagement of GITR with its natural receptor using an agonist, the pathway can be initiated again.
Only two years into graduate studies, Derek is making some important inroads into the role of GITR and its use in treatment. Derek’s supervisor Dr. Watts isn’t surprised he’s succeeding in his work, “He’s very focused and brings a lot of technical expertise to our lab. He’s come to us from a co-op program so he’s had a lot of research experience already.” And his experience is paying off. So far, he’s seen promising results which he will make available soon. In addition to these results, he plans to do follow up studies with HIV ex vivo because, as Derek points out, “the LCMV model is informative but there are notable limitations to it.”
Research isn’t without costs though, and Derek is grateful for the support provided by CAHR’s Doctoral scholarship award in basic sciences. The grant from CAHR has covered Derek’s stipend, allowing funds to be used to support his research and enabling him to share his results at upcoming conferences. The Canadian Association for HIV Research is proud to support students like Derek through annual Master’s and Doctoral level research awards in Basic, Clinical, Epidemiological and Social Sciences.