There is still no vaccine or cure for HIV/AIDS and the only available treatment involves taking multiple drugs for the duration of the patient’s life. Therefore there is a critical need to develop strategies to block transmission of this virus, which occurs via sexual intercourse in by far the majority of cases.
We are working to fill fundamental gaps in our knowledge about how HIV is transmitted across the various tissues of the genital and anorectal tracts. In order to do this, we have set up collaborations with a variety of sexual health specialists, plastic surgeons and colorectal surgeons so that we have access to all the types of healthy human tissues that HIV encounters during sexual intercourse such as in the anus, rectum, foreskin, vagina and cervix.
Our particular focus is on dendritic cells, one of the first immune cells that HIV encounters. These cells play a critical role in HIV transmission as they deliver the virus to its main target cells, the CD4 T lymphocyte, in which the virus explosively replicates.
We have shown the different tissues of the genital and anorectal tracts differ considerably in the subsets of dendritic cells they contain. We have mapped out the HIV binding receptors these cells express and are trying to determine which ones play the key roles in transmission.
Our hope is that these discoveries will one day lead to new drugs or medical devices that high risk individuals can use to protect themselves from contracting HIV.