| By Pamela Cowan, Leader-Post December 22, 2011 |
REGINA — Two former Reginans are collaborating on research that could change the future of HIV — not only in Saskatchewan where the rate is consistently the highest in Canada, but worldwide.
Nevan Krogan studied at the University of Regina before pursuing his PhD in medical genetics at the University of Toronto and beginning his current position, where he leads an international team of scientists working on cutting-edge HIV research.
Since 2006, the associate professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California in San Francisco has focused on what is considered the most comprehensive study of the inner workings of HIV.
Researchers have mapped out how the HIV virus hijacks components of the human cells it infects — work that might lead to new ways to design future HIV/AIDS drugs.
“A gene has information on it. It’s a section of DNA that codes for a protein and proteins are the functional units in all living organisms, so if you have 18 genes, you have 18 proteins and there’s about 20,000 proteins in us,” Krogan said.
Researchers tagged each HIV protein and pulled it out of human cells to analyze the connection between human proteins and HIV proteins. They discovered 497 connections.
“No one had done a study like this before and it’s interesting to point out that only 19 of these connections had been previously reported,” Krogan said. “In theory, each one of those 497 connections represents a drug target. The virus needs these physical connections in order to infect. If you can interrupt these connections, you can give the human cells more of a fighting chance against HIV infection.”
The findings were revealed in two papers released in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
One paper details the discovery of the 497 connections and the second describes in depth the investigation of one connection.
“We think the one connection represents a fantastic drug target for future studies because one of the HIV proteins is very heavily reliant on this human protein in order to function and that function is required for optimal HIV infection,” Krogan said.
He stressed the collaborative nature of his recent research, which involves groups from many universities and includes Dr. Reuben Harris at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis — another former Reginan.
“We started working together and realized very quickly that we weren’t only from the same province and same city, but we actually grew up a few blocks away,” Krogan said. “He did his undergraduate work at the University of Alberta, but it is still rare to have two people from Regina working on something like this.”
Krogan said the research has identified several hundred new drug targets.
“In the past, a lot of effort has gone into trying to find drugs that bind to and inhibit specifically the HIV proteins, but the problem with that is the genetic information associated with HIV can mutate quickly and therefore you get resistance so quickly,” said the 35-year-old.
His research targets human protein, which doesn’t mutate fast.
“If we can devise a drug that would specifically interrupt an HIV-human interaction, there would be less chance of the virus becoming resistant to that particular drug,” Krogan said. “Now that we’ve done this for HIV, we’re in the process of looking at other viruses in a similar fashion — Hepatitis C, flu, West Nile virus, herpes.”
The discovery that different pathogens target the same proteins could mean one drug would combat many different viruses.
According to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health’s annual report on Nov. 30, the national HIV rate remained fairly stable over the past seven years. However, Saskatchewan’s HIV rates in 2006 surpassed the national rate for positive HIV cases and have remained consistently higher than the national rate.
Since HIV monitoring began in Saskatchewan, 1,371 lab-confirmed cases have been reported.
In the past decade, the annual number of HIV diagnoses has steadily increased — from 26 cases in 2002 to a peak of 200 cases in 2009. In 2010, 172 HIV cases were reported.
Krogan’s work will impact the people of his home province and across the world.
Born and raised in Regina, he carried out research in the laboratory of Rod Kelln while studying at the University of Regina from 1993 to 1999.
Krogan is proud of his alma mater.
“It shows you can get a really strong foundation at the University of Regina and go on to do really important work,” he said.
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