Vaginal microbes are at the centre of a novel discovery that aims to investigate if these bacteria trap HIV or act as a courier service to deliver the virus to the host within the human body.

Professor Johnson Mak

Building from a collaborative paradigm-shifting publication in Cell Reports, Griffith University’s Professor Johnson Mak from the Institute for Glycomics, is leading the study thanks to a USD$297,000 grant from the United States of America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“At the heart of the research will be the discovery that the HIV surface protein is decorated with an envelope or ‘glycan shield’ of sugar molecules,” Professor Mak said.

“Both Lactobacillus and Neisseria gonorrhoeae are vaginal microbes that could have opposing impacts on virus transmission.

“With this in mind, we’ll look at how the manipulation of the glycan shield could act as a molecular velcro to interact with the proteins and/or sugars on the surface of the vaginal microbes.

“We’ll investigate the biology of the vaginal microbes to see if they either act as the first line of defence by trapping HIV to deny it access to infect the host, or if it hitch-hikes across the sub-epithelial barrier to gain access to the host.”

With support from researchers such as Professor Kate Seib, Associate Professor Daniel Kolarich, and Dr Arun Everest-Dass at Institute for Glycomics, this study will use state-of-the-art techniques including surface plasmon resonance, recombinant protein production, electron microscopy, mass spectrometry, and molecular virology, to investigate the interplay amongst bacteria, virus and human host.

This US NIH-funded research program is an example of the ongoing commitment from both the Mak lab and the Institute for Glycomics to elucidate how glycan (sugar) biology can be leveraged to improve human health.

Current NIH support will allow the Mak lab to accelerate its discovery and to explore translational potential in the next 24 months.

Institute for Glycomics Director Professor Mark von Itzstein AO

Institute for Glycomics Director Professor Mark von Itzstein AO

The Director of the Institute for Glycomics Professor Mark von Itzstein AO is delighted with this important grant win.

“The fact that our researchers are winning US NIH grants is a true testament to the quality and innovation of the research being undertaken here in the Institute,” Professor von Itzstein said.

“This particular study has the potential of providing a solution to a very difficult disease problem.”

Professor Mak is recruiting a post-doctoral research fellow to join the project along with a PhD student.

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The initial research published in Cell Reports was completed in conjunction with researchers Dr Belinda de Villiers, Dr Chris Day, Associate Professor Thomas Haselhorst, and Professor Michael Jennings.

3: Good Health and Well-being
UN Sustainable Development Goals 3: Good Health and Well-being