Teaming up to solve the HIV puzzle

Researcher Eric Arts

Eric Arts grew up near London and did his undergraduate degree at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. Now he’s a leading HIV researcher, and Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology

By Pat Morden, BA ’77

Eric Arts, HBSc’90, PhD, is a pretty big deal in the global HIV research community, with a raft of achievements behind him and a very bright future ahead.

In addition to being a world-class researcher, Arts is an enthusiastic cyclist. He rides to work, and routinely clocks 200 kilometres or more a week. When he travels internationally, he takes a folding bike with him in a suitcase. “It’s the best way to see a country and its people,” he said. “Between meetings I put my bike together and go for a 100-km ride to see what there is to see.”

To see what there is to see—a good motto for a dedicated biomedical researcher. Arts grew up on a farm in Essex County, Ontario but always knew he would be a scientist. Within days of starting his undergraduate program at Western University, he had volunteered to work in Professor Anthony Ridgway’s lab.

It was 1986 and the lab was involved in HIV research, only two years after the virus had been discovered. By the time Arts had completed a fourth-year project on HIV, he was committed to continuing the work. A quarter century later, the commitment burns as bright as ever, and Arts is back at Western leading a team of researchers on the brink of major advances.

After his undergraduate degree, Arts completed a PhD with Dr. Mark Wainberg, a leading HIV researcher and as he puts it, “the moral compass for HIV research in Canada.” Arts moved to Case Western University for his postdoctoral research and then joined the faculty there.

His initial research was pure science, focused on the proteins and enzymes produced by the HIV virus, how new antiretroviral drugs blocked them, and how drug resistance developed. “Biochemistry set the foundation for me that allowed me to be successful in clinical research later,” he said. In 1998, Arts established an advanced molecular clinical lab in Uganda, which has become a centre for testing for drug resistance in Africa.

After 20 productive years at Case Western, Arts was lured back to Western and Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in 2014 to become Chair of Microbiology and Immunology. He was attracted by the strong team already in place in the department and a commitment on the part of the University to create a stateof- the-art research facility. Arts has recruited several more key team members since his arrival.

“Science is changing, the silos don’t work anymore. If we want to move forward, we have to work together to come up with new ideas.” —Eric Arts

One of them is Dr. Jamie Mann. Educated in the U.K., Mann started his HIV research at St George’s University of London and later Imperial College London. An expert in vaccine delivery methods, he moved to Cleveland to work with Arts and then followed him to Canada. “Eric’s research is very compelling and he has the molecular knowledge and techniques required to be truly innovative,” said Mann.

One of the challenges of HIV research is the sheer diversity of the virus, with hundreds of different strains. Arts’ team has shown that this diversity has an impact on how the virus causes disease and how the disease progresses. The most dominant strains in North America and Europe, for example, are very aggressive, requiring immediate treatment and resulting in more treatment failures. The strains most common in Africa, by contrast, are slower moving and respond better to treatment. Arts’ team is now exploring whether certain drugs in the arsenal of 29 approved antiretrovirals are better suited to fight each subtype.

The diversity of HIV is also a challenge when it comes to developing a preventive vaccine. “A successful vaccine has to be something that can neutralize or develop protection against a wide variety of HIV species,” said Mann. “Conventional vaccine approaches have really struggled to come to terms with that.” Arts’ team developed a heterogeneous vaccine and are now working with a delivery method developed by Schulich Medicine & Dentistry colleague Dr. Yong Kang. “We’re combining our approach with his to get the best of both worlds,” said Arts.

The Arts team is also hoping to develop a ‘cure’ for HIV.

While antiretrovirals are generally effective in preventing full-blown AIDS, some HIV virus lurks in the body, ready to rebound whenever treatment stops. People taking antiretrovirals are at higher risk for cardiovascular and other complications.

The team has developed an approach that involves creating virus-like particles (VLPs) derived from the patient’s own virus. The VLPs can no longer replicate but in other respects are identical to live virus. Their goal is to flush out the latent virus so that the patient’s immune system, bolstered by the antiretrovirals he or she is taking, can destroy it. The approach currently requires the creation of individual VLPs for each patient, but Mann says the team has plans to create VLPs that could be administered to entire populations. The team is showing good results with primary human cell cultures, and is also evaluating this strategy in Macaques infected by SIV, the monkey version of HIV. They hope to start human trials shortly.

All this work and much more will be supported by a new $15-million research facility, currently under construction. Known as the Imaging Pathogens for Knowledge Translation (ImPaKT) facility, it will combine state-of-the-art imaging equipment, including positron emission tomography, magnetic resonance imaging and in vivo imaging systems, in a Containment Level II and III facility.

It will enable researchers to study some of the nastiest viruses and bacteria safely and effectively. “It’s an opportunity to look at infection and immunity in a whole new way. We have a great team in place, and I’m excited to bring in these tools and see what we can do with them,” said Rick Gibson, who is overseeing its development. He also hopes the unique facility will attract top researchers from across Canada and around the world.

Arts already collaborates with scientists in several countries, and is a strong believer in the team approach. “Science is changing,” he said. “The silos don’t work anymore. If we want to move forward, we have to work together to come up with new ideas.”