Marc Johnson began his research career studying a rabies-like virus in fish. “Working with fish viruses is really cool research,” he notes, but there are just not a lot of people doing it,” and that sense of isolation was eventually too much. In search of collaboration and community, Johnson switched from fish viruses to HIV. Since then, the assistant professor in MU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology has dedicated his research efforts to the study of these related humans viruses. He and his collaborators have made great progress in understanding how the HIV virus works in order to develop new therapeutics to combat the disease.
Talking about sex is uncomfortable. Such a conversation about private matters can be tough whether the discussion is with preteens or doctors. It is even more difficult when conducted in two different languages. But Marjorie Sable, Professor and Director of the Department of Social Work, works to break down the communication barrier when it comes to family planning.
According to some researchers, approximately 5-10% of people in Scandinavian countries are genetically incapable of contracting the HIV virus. “This is really interesting,” Johnson notes. While theories attempt to account for this, “in general it is still kind of a black box as to why it is they are resistant.”
While scientists have developed ways to treat HIV, they have yet to develop a cure for the devastating disease because they have not been able to kill every last infected cell. “HIV has our immune system’s ‘number.’ Our immune system cannot figure out that those are infected cells and that it needs to kill them.” The protein responsible for HIV virus replication is the Gag protein. Much of Johnson’s current work is focused on understanding how Gag orchestrates this replication, as this knowledge could be used to uncover a treatment capable of triggering the immune system’s response.
Comparing parts of the HIV virus to the parts of a military missile, Johnson explains the various components of the virus. A complete understanding of the HIV structure and life cycle will help scientists develop new treatments for the disease. “It’s pretty remarkable, and there’s clearly a lot about it that we don’t yet know,” Johnson admits. Most of his research revolves around the protein Gag.
Johnson’s lab research is largely concentrated on the study of the HIV retrovirus. He says his work can be used on three levels. First, he hopes that by learning how the HIV virus works, he will be able to develop new drugs to treat and cure the disease. Second, he hopes that a thorough understanding of the virus will lead to the development of further gene therapy. Third, he hopes that an understanding of virus structure in general will lead to a better understanding of how human cells work. “Just about everything we know about modern molecular biology came from studying viruses,” Johnson says.
Although the word “virus” has become a part of the everyday vernacular–what exactly is a retrovirus? Marc Johnson says viruses can be grouped into RNA viruses and DNA viruses. RNA viruses cause short-term diseases such as the flu and the common cold, whereas DNA viruses cause more long-term illnesses like herpes or cancer. “Retroviruses are a unique blend,” he explains. “They are like a DNA virus that can replicate with RNA strategies.” HIV is a retrovirus.
Johnson explains his love for science, his passion for microbiology, and how all that led him to the study of retroviruses. “Working with fish viruses is really cool research,” he notes, but there are just not a lot of people in this area, and that sense of isolation was eventually too much: “I missed having people with whom to interact, so I went to the absolute opposite—HIV.”
Gallimore speaks of the obstacles to overcome when trying to speak the unspeakable, to comprehend the incomprehensible, that is genocide. Her next book involves literary criticism as well as sociolinguistic and anthropological methods, drawing upon data collected in Rwanda as well as archival data and transcripts of the testimonies of women who survived the genocide. She has been working with an organization in Rwanda called ABASA, a group made of rape survivors. (Abasa is a Kinyrwanda word that means “we are all the same.”) Interviewing women from this group, Gallimore hopes to give voice to their stories and identify their various needs so that Step Up can try to address them.
The outcomes of this study will define a process by which these plants can be studied and evaluated. Folk hopes that others will be able to carry on with similar studies to begin to learn and inform the public about these plants.
Twenty million people have been infected with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the availability of drugs and health care is far below what is needed to stop the pandemic. Responding to this problem, scientists from MU and the University of the Western Cape have joined forces. Their relationship is built on trust and about 400 visits back and forth over the past two decades.
Some of the challenges of this project have included building trust with traditional healers, but the American team members have benefited from the deep trust that has developed between the South African colleagues and traditional healers. Folk’s team has budgeted for compensation, preferred in the form of cattle, for traditional healers.
The team has completed phase one of the project, which involved establishing the administrative structure for TICIPS and conducting a small-scale clinical trial of the safety of the South African plant Sutherlandia in healthy adults. The next step will involve trying to find scientific evidence about the plant’s safety.
The answer to why Sub-Saharan Africa is known is the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic is complex. But Folk states that while “we don’t know all the answers, in part the apartheid government worked to destroy the traditional culture and society of South Africa,” which clearly exacerbated the problem.