Two University of Manitoba professors have received a significant grant for their research into HIV prevention.

Keith Fowke and Adam Burgener were each recently awarded $2M over five years from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

Fowke’s study is a continuation of his work investigating whether aspirin can reduce inflammation in people who have a high HIV exposure risk, and in turn make other preventative medications more effective.

This part of the study will combine pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP medications with aspirin. He said it’ll be tested in mice and also in a group of sex-trade workers in Kenya.

“We already know that PrEP works but it doesn’t work 100% of the time, all the time. We’re looking to see if we can add aspirin to that equation make the prevention approach even more effective,” said the U of M medical microbiology and infectious diseases professor.

Fowke said aspirin was chosen for three reasons:

  1. It’s acceptable: The women in the community that will be testing this in Kenya said it’s a drug that they know is not associated with HIV, there is no stigma with taking it, and it’s known by the community.
  2. It’s affordable: It’s very cheap and it’s found all throughout the world. Fowke said every small kiosk in small villages throughout the world already carry aspirin, and this project’s goal is to provide good scientific evidence that adding aspirin can have scientifically proven benefits.
  3. It’s safe: A lot of people are taking aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease and it’s already taken by hundreds of thousands of people globally – with very few side effects.

“Just like cancer therapy uses a number of different drugs to try and block the cancer at different stages — similarly we want to use two different drugs that will block HIV both on the virus side, as well as on the susceptible host side,” Fowke said. “That way this cocktail or combination approach should be more effective than any one approach alone.”

Adam Burgener’s research is zeroing in on the body’s microbiome.

“You’ve probably heard a lot about the microbiome,” said the U of M obstetrics & gynaecology and medical microbiology associate professor. “The microbiome is important for our health. It helps us digest our food, it determines whether some drugs work or not, and even determines whether mosquitoes like to bite us.”

Brugener said his study is interested in how the microbiome may be playing a role in HIV transmission.

“HIV transmission is still a big problem,” he said. “There are upwards of almost 2 million new infections every year. The majority of these are women. In areas like sub-Saharan Africa HIV infection rates are very high, especially in young women.”

He said his and other research have already found the microbiome is very important in HIV susceptibility, especially the microbiome found in a woman’s reproductive organs. Burgener said imbalances can lead to increased risks for HIV infection.

He said his lab has previously done a sub-study on a group of African women who were already enrolled in research where they were taking a gel for HIV prevention. They found for women who had a certain bacterium present, the drug worked extremely well, but if it was not present the drug did not work very well.

“It was later found that certain bacteria were metabolizing the drug and interfering with its activation,” Burgener explained.

His project will now expand to look into other drugs being used in HIV prevention, and if the microbiome interacts with them, as well as vaccines that are already in clinical trials.

Eventually, he said there could be interventions using pre or pro-biotics, or a change in diet that might help.

“But first we need to understand what parts of the microbiome are important, or that may be interfering, or affecting these preventions modalities against HIV,” he said.

The University of Manitoba said it has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS research for decades. Since 1980 the school has had a running collaboration with the University of Nairobi and during that time U of M scientists have been a part of several monumental discoveries in the field of HIV/AIDS.