Personal Genomics: Using DNA to Unlock HIV Secrets

HIV has proven to be one of the world’s most challenging infectious diseases for scientists to combat. One of the reasons why is because HIV targets cells of the immune system and attacks the body’s own defense mechanisms that fight off invading germs. The virus also rapidly replicates and mutates inside of an infected person’s body.

Even more puzzling is the fact that exposure to the virus does not always turn into a severe infection and it disproportionately impacts certain groups of people more than others. Globally, around 36.9 million people are living with HIV.

Under the leadership of Dr. Paul McLaren, research scientists from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) are investigating why certain groups of people are severely impacted by HIV, while in others, the infections progress less rapidly. Their work has led them to question if there is more to the spread of the disease than previously thought. Can our genetic predisposition to the virus play a role? Taking a cutting edge approach, Dr. McLaren is not just studying the virus, he’s studying the people that have been affected through their “personal genomics”.

Genomics ─ the science of exploring an organism’s entire DNA ─ is helping move the NML’s research into new and exciting areas of discovery. It has enabled scientists to identify all the characteristics of a virus. This information helps categorize how harmful an infection is, how it spreads, and even potential treatment options.

Dr. McLaren is taking genomics one step further by studying how the genetic makeup of research participants impacts their response to HIV. This is where “personal genomics” comes in. Personal genomics examines an individual’s genetic predisposition to a disease or illness.

Dr. McLaren works to identify parts of peoples’ DNA that makes them resistant to, or slows down the development of HIV and AIDS. He and his team have identified a portion of DNA that makes a person more likely to tolerate an HIV infection. Remarkably, they have found a gene that makes those who are HIV positive less able to pass on the virus, even without therapy. With this discovery, they have cracked some of the secrets of HIV, providing an opportunity to improve research, prevention measures and treatments.

The true power of personal genomics is not only in discovering who is predisposed to certain diseases, but also in providing personalized health treatments. This understanding of what makes people more susceptible to a disease can help inform targeted prevention and treatment options. Research is showing that people can respond differently to infections based on their genetic makeup, so, with access to this information, public health approaches can be personalized to find the best treatment for each individual.

Personal genomics provides an opportunity to maximize healthcare in a way that has not been done before. Dr. McLaren’s work focuses on how to translate personal genomics into a key to unlock the one of the world’s medical mysteries, and it could prove to be the next frontier of HIV research.