As those who study it know all too well, HIV is a nasty virus that is very adaptable – so adaptable it can mutate differently in every individual to overcome his or her own unique immune system. That makes vaccine development difficult, to say the least.
And that is what attracted Eric Martin to study in the lab of Zabrina Brumme and Mark Brockman at Simon Fraser University (SFU). There, he has access to clinical and research data from more than 2,500 people with HIV and more than 25,000 HIV genotypes, all reflecting different virus mutations.
Eric, who holds the CAHR/Abbott Virology Master’s Scholarship, is using bioinformatics techniques to understand more about, and to try to develop rules for, how HIV mutates in response to each individual’s immune system. He is focusing his research on how the virus escapes recognition by killer T-cells that are the body’s normal way of fighting infection.
He has designed and deployed a database to store and analyze patient data that allows him to quickly examine host and viral factors that may contribute to this process. But computational techniques, he recognizes, can only go so far in the absence of biological understanding. That’s where his experimental work comes in – to develop new techniques to assess the function of virus-specific T-cell receptors.
This combination of computer and lab work is a unique feature of Eric’s research that makes it extremely valuable, say his supervisors.
“Eric possesses tremendous curiosity and enthusiasm for scientific discovery. He is also a highly creative thinker who brings fresh perspective to every question. These characteristics, combined with his unique skills that span two disciplines, have been key to his, and our, success thus far” notes Brumme.
“Eric’s work has helped to bridge gaps in our understanding of HIV evolution and his results will allow us to better define the types of T-cell responses that we should aim to generate through vaccination”, adds Brockman
Martin’s ultimate goal is to create knowledge that will help to develop a vaccine that can provide immunity against HIV both in its “normal” and its adapted forms.
“It’s important to know how the virus is evading the immune system,” Martin says. “It’s also useful to know where an HIV vaccine should initiate an immune response, and where it could actually be harmful.”
Holding the CAHR/Abbott Virology scholarship, Eric says, has made a huge difference in his studies. It has allowed him to devote his time fully to research and allowed him to work on additional projects with collaborators from Harvard University and Microsoft Research. Based on his accomplishments to date, CAHR extended his scholarship for an additional year to permit him to finish his degree. After that, he is not sure where he will go – but he remains committed to research in HIV/AIDS.
“I believe very strongly in the importance of studying the immunology and virology of HIV for the purpose of working towards a vaccine,” he says.