Having spent his school years in Botswana, Peter Quashie was familiar with the toll AIDS was taking in the community around him. By high school, the Ghana native had already decided that if he had the opportunity, he would be a researcher and seek a cure for HIV/AIDS.
“That was the only thing that I wanted to do,” he says.
Flash forward to 2012, and Quashie is fulfilling his dream, carrying out his doctoral research in the McGill University lab of Dr. Mark Wainberg, one of the world’s pre-eminent HIV researchers, with the support of a CAHR Doctoral Research Award. (He chose Dr. Wainberg’s lab based on his research interest, incidentally, not even knowing what a fundamental figure the Canadian researcher is – “I didn’t know how big he was,” Quashie says.)
Quashie’s research focuses on drug resistance to HIV treatment. One of the main ways drugs act to prevent the progression of HIV is by interfering with the insertion of the HIV genome into the host genome, using a class of drugs called integrase inhibitors. HIV, ever wily, has figured out how to bypass the first-generation HIV integrase inhibitors, becoming resistant to their action, so Quashie is focusing his efforts on the second-generation drugs. His hypothesis is that the second-generation drugs inhibit HIV integration in a different way. He is trying to find mutations in HIV that make it resistant to these second-generation drugs, in the hope that it might, one day, lead to the development of even more effective treatments for HIV.
For Quashie, that is one of the benefits of working in Dr. Wainberg’s lab – he has freedom in choosing his research topic, but Dr. Wainberg keeps everyone’s focus strictly on the clinic.
“It’s lab-based work, but it’s also viable in the clinical setting,” says Quashie of his research. “As we formulate our hypothesis, we’re always thinking about the clinical aspects.”
“Our research revolves very strongly around HIV drug resistance and obviously that’s a clinically relevant area,” says Dr. Wainberg. “Peter is very much in the thick of this. He’s a great student and does excellent work.”
Having a CAHR Doctoral Research Award has played a major role in Quashie’s success to date. It’s enabled him to focus on his research, rather than being a teaching assistant, and it’s enabled him to attend conferences such as the Fourth International Conference on Retroviral Integration, held in Italy in fall 2011. It’s also enabled him to collaborate with his colleagues in the Wainberg lab, helping Quashie to build the elements of a research career, such as publications and other measures of research impact.
While he’s focused on drug resistance right now, Quashie’s ultimate goal remains to find a cure for HIV/AIDS, and that’s where he plans on spending his time once finished his PhD. And, despite the obstacles standing in the way of a cure, Quashie believes that one will be found – or even more likely, a multitude of cures that work in different ways.
“I wouldn’t say no [to the possibility of a cure],” he says. “But I would not be able to put a time frame on that.”