AIDS research team aims to push boundaries in science and beyond

Researchers are launching a new project aimed at understanding vaginal transmission of HIV and examining what happens in the earliest stages of infection in people with a cervix, who represent about one-fifth of new cases each year. 

Christine Fennessey, Ph.D. and Claire Deleage, Ph.D. in the Frederick National Laboratory’s AIDS and Cancer Virus Program received funding from the National Institutes of Health’s  Office of AIDS Research to study AIDS virus dissemination after vaginal exposure. Centers for Disease Control data shows of the nearly 40,000 new HIV cases in the U.S. in 2018, about 19% were vaginal infections. 

“There are still a lot of unknowns in  the first hours and days of infection,” Deleage said. “Using unique tools and model, we wanted to see if we can learn more about the early stage of the infection.” 

Deleage heads the Tissue Analysis Core, while Fennessey manages the  Viral Evolution Core and is a scientist in the Retroviral Evolution Section, both within the AIDS and Cancer Virus Program. 

As they strive to answer mysteries surrounding HIV infection, the two scientists said it wasn’t lost on them that they’re women launching a project in a field notoriously dominated by men. According to the 2020 Women in STEM Workforce Index created by the University of California San Diego Extension Center for Research and Evaluation, women hold only one in four science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs in the United States. 

Christine Fennessey
Christine Fennessey, Ph.D.

“We need more women as leaders on projects,” Deleage said. “It’s evolving and it’s better for more recent research, but it is still really difficult to get to head projects in science. We’re really excited we got this approval and are doing everything from scratch." 

Understanding HIV transmission 

Upon vaginal exposure, HIV can infect susceptible target cells locally, but the presence of the virus triggers immune signals that recruit T cells to these sites.  While it has been proposed that recruitment of these cells, and their subesquent infection and migration to other tissues plays a key role in the dissemination of the virus to cause a systemic infection, this remains unproven.    Deleage reasoned that if recruitment of the immune cells to the initial vaginal sites of infection is blocked,  it could impact the spread of the virus.  

In order to study the phenomenon, the scientists will be using a  drug  that prevents T cell migration in a nonhuman primate model of vaginal AIDS virus transmission they have developed.  

“We’re using a combination of approaches and cutting edge assay methods to elucidate details on the routes and mechanisms of transmission and viral dissemination.” Fennessey said. 

The study will also use analytical technologies created in their respective laboratories.   

“The enabling assay methods we’ve developed within the AIDS and Cancer Virus program make this project feasible,” Deleage said. “This project is a perfect example of having the tools in hand and now seeing how we can put our brains together and apply those tools to an important problem.” 

Claire Deleage
Claire Deleage, Ph.D.

Both Deleage and Fennessey started at FNL as post-doctoral fellows in the AIDS and Cancer Virus Program and have continued their careers within the program. Sharing similar research interests, with complementary technical expertise, both scientists said they were not only excited to team up for this project, but also eager to pursue their own ideas. 

“We took the initiative, and it was nice that we were able to secure the funding support that allows usto take this on,” Fennessey said. “HIV is still a tragic epidemic. There’s still no cure. We’ve come a long way since the AIDS was first identified, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Hopefully our study will contribute in some small way to finally ending this epidemic.”