UNMC researchers play role in HIV study

by Kalani Simpson, UNMC public relations | February 09, 2018

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Humans with HIV and rhesus macaque monkeys with Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the equivalent virus for non-human primates, eventually contract AIDS symptoms and disease if the virus is untreated.

But sooty mangabey monkeys with SIV do not. Instead, sooty mangabeys live healthy lives.

"The sooty mangabey does not get sick. Why not?" asked Rob Norgren, Ph.D., professor of genetics, cell biology and anatomy. "What's different about their genetics that prevents them from getting ill?"

Finding out could lead to breakthroughs in treatment, transmission prevention and vaccine development for humans with HIV.

Dr. Norgren is a co-author on a study tackling the subject, published Jan. 3 in the prestigious journal Nature.

The project, led by researchers from Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, compared the genes of humans and non-human primates, including the sooty mangabey.

What did they find?

"Two genes related to the immune system were strikingly different(in the sooty mangabeys)," Dr. Norgren said. "The paper showed that these differences were likely to be important in immune system functioning."

And likely why sooty mangabeys can simply live with SIV, rather than getting sick.

"This study provides a framework," Dr. Norgren said. "It can elucidate candidate pathways for interventions."

Dr. Norgren and his UNMC lab played a small but integral role in the study. He helped with the strategy to find these differences, the data analysis, and the interpretation of the differences they found.

And, he helped double-check the work. Dr. Norgren designed "primers," or very short pieces of DNA, to make it easier to look at the region of DNA that appeared to be different between rhesus monkeys and humans, and the sooty mangabeys.

"We wanted to be certain that the difference between these species was real," Dr. Norgren said.

The gene amplification and sequencing, using methods more accurate than next-generation gene sequencing, confirmed that the investigators really were seeing what they thought.

UNMC's contribution highlights the level of cooperation and varying areas of expertise needed for a study like this.

"This project is a wonderful example of the scientific advances possible when we combine whole genome sequence analysis with expert understanding of the causes of disease, in this case the immune response to SIV infection," collaborator Jeffrey Rogers, Ph.D., of the Baylor College of Medicine, said in an Emory University news release.

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Jerrie Dayton
February 09, 2018 at 10:15 AM

Very interesting discovery. Exciting contribution and work from Nebraska.

Diego Torres-Russotto, MD
February 09, 2018 at 8:55 AM

Dr. Rob Norgren is one of our UNMC jewels. It is an honor to call him a colleague. Congratulations Rob!