US-based scientist and distinguished Otago alumna, Professor Carole McArthur and her team of researchers, are behind the recently-announced discovery and identification of a new HIV subtype, which has been characterised by US healthcare company Abbott Laboratories.
Professor McArthur says it is the first new HIV “Group M” subtype in almost 20 years and owes its discovery to more recent advances in next-generation sequencing.
Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago announced that the findings, published yesterday in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (JAIDS), show the role next-generation genome sequencing is playing in helping researchers stay one step ahead of mutating viruses and avoiding new pandemics.
Since the beginning of the global AIDS pandemic, 75 million people have been infected with HIV and 37.9 million people today are living with the virus.
"In an increasingly connected world, we can no longer think of viruses being contained to one location," says Professor McArthur, a professor in the departments of oral and craniofacial sciences at the University of Missouri — Kansas City, and one of the study authors.
"This discovery reminds us that to end the HIV pandemic, we must continue to outthink this continuously changing virus and use the latest advancements in technology and resources to monitor its evolution."
This research marks the first time a new subtype of "Group M" HIV virus has been identified since guidelines for classifying new strains of HIV were established in 2000. Group M viruses are responsible for the global pandemic, which can be traced back to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Abbott announcement says that today, next-generation sequencing technology allows researchers to build an entire genome at higher speeds and lower costs. In order to utilise this technology, the Abbott scientists had to develop and apply new techniques to help narrow in on the virus portion of the sample to fully sequence and complete the genome.
A principal scientist and head of the Global Viral Surveillance Program, Diagnostics, at Abbott, Dr Mary Rodgers, also a study author, explains that identifying new viruses like this is like searching for a needle in the haystack.
"By advancing our techniques and using next generation sequencing technology, we are pulling the needle out with a magnet. This scientific discovery can help us ensure we are stopping new pandemics in their tracks."
Abbott created its Global Viral Surveillance Program 25 years ago to monitor HIV and hepatitis viruses and identify mutations.
Professor McArthur set up research and treatment clinics in the 1990s in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon. She is the Director of AfriHealth
Partnerships International at the University of Missouri and visits Africa two or three times a year.
Her research in infectious diseases involves HIV and Tuberculosis (TB) diagnostic tool development and HIV rare variant discovery. She is currently funded for characterisation of rare variants of HIV in the Congo Basin and has developed a research lab in Cameroon focusing on HIV drug resistance. She also established the first TB reference laboratory in the NW Province of Cameroon in 2004.
“I was driven by wanting to do something for HIV patients in the 1990s, when there were no drugs in Africa for HIV and I saw the devastating impact on women and children,” Professor McArthur explains.
The on-the-ground genetic research allows them to be ahead of the game in terms of the evolution of drug resistance and pathogenesis.
Professor McArthur graduated from the University of Otago with a BSc (Hons) in Zoology in 1974, and gained her PhD from Otago in 1977. From 1977-1979 she carried out post-doctoral study at the University of Florida and obtained an MD degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1991.