Vancouver researcher examines health of HIV-exposed but uninfected infants

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HIV is a disease that has had a terrible impact on at-risk individuals here in Vancouver. In order to better understand the disease, one Vancouver based researcher is examining some of the most at-risk people on the planet, with the hopes that the lessons learned from his research can play a significant part in studying and treating HIV in our community.

Effects of HIV between mother and child

Dr. David Speert, who is the Senior Clinician Scientist and Head at the Centre for Understanding and Preventing Infection in Children at the Child and Family Research Institute, became curious about one unique aspect of the disease -- its impact on infants -- after a 2005 visit to South Africa. Specifically, he wanted to know why babies born to HIV-infected mothers often seemed to experience higher rates of other illnesses, even though the babies themselves were not HIV positive.

In collaboration with colleagues at Stellenbosch University and the nearby Tygerberg Hospital in South Africa, Dr. Speert began a study with the goal of determining the underlying causes leading to the increased susceptibility of these infants to other infections. 

“Nobody knows why they get sick, there are so many possible reasons,” said Dr. Speert.

Some of these potential reasons include the children's exposure to pathogens, nutrition, genetics, and the environment they live in. Having such a wide range of potential causes meant that it would be difficult to focus the research, but the team was able to learn a lot from a recently completed pilot study. “We really want to be experts before moving forward,” explained Dr. Speert. With that information in hand, the team is now progressing to a larger birth cohort study planned to start in July 2012.

Moving forward with HIV research

Another challenge sill facing the study is funding. Since the medical research council in South Africa has limited funding, Canadian support will also be needed in order to meet the study's objectives.  “The next study will put us in a much better place to apply for big grants,” said Dr. Speert.

Furthermore, some of the technology, facilities and expertise required for the study were found to be lacking in South Africa.

“Incorporating Canadian technology and equipment is assisting in gaining that expertise,” says Dr. Speert. “For the most part if it can be done in South Africa then it should be.” This, however, has not possible for all aspects of the study. Blood analysis, for example, needed to be performed in Canada, requiring expensive shipping costs and slowing results. With ongoing advances in diagnostic technology, keeping equipment up to date in South Africa has not always been feasible.

When asked about the suspected outcome for the next study, Dr. Speert says that he expects they will find the observed infections are not due to one single factor, but rather the cause to be multi-factorial. Though this would only provoke more questions, the immediate benefit for the children could be the design of better illness prevention and treatment plans. 

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