OHTN Applied HIV Research Chair
Women are more vulnerable to sexual transmitted infections than men. Charu Kaushic and her research team work to understand the environment of the female genital tract and the mucosal immune system in the reproductive tract. The team’s efforts focus on creating barriers to HIV transmission during heterosexual sex by understanding these biological factors.
- This research team showed that when the cells of the female genital tract are infected by HIV, this area becomes more easily penetrated by bacteria and HIV and other viruses. Similarly, they showed that other local infections and infected semen can make the cells of the mucosa (the lining of the genital tract) more vulnerable to HIV infection. This appears to be due to changes in the levels of cytokines, small molecules that allow cells to “talk” to each other.
- The Effects of Hormonal Contraceptives on HIV Infection Risk – Studies from Africa show that women are twice as likely to become infected with HIV and twice as likely to transmit the virus to their male partners if they are using the medroxyprogesterone-containing contraceptive, Depo Provera. Charu is working to understand the effects of this birth control method on the immune system of the female genital track. This study is a collaboration with Women’s Health in Women’s Hands focused specifically on African-Caribbean women, who are more likely than other Ontario women to use this form of contraception.
- Use of Curcumin to Prevent HIV Infection – Curcumin is a natural anti-inflammatory compound, and some early studies have suggested it may have anti-HIV effects. This team is working to understand its effects when applied directly to the genital tract and its potential to prevent HIV infection. Pre-clinical testing in mice is ongoing and clinical studies are being planned.
- Cytokines to Prevent HIV Infection – The research team continue to build on its earlier work (see findings above) on the role of cytokines in enabling (and preventing) HIV penetration of the genital track. The team hopes that one of these naturally occurring human cytokines (IL-22) may prove useful to prevent HIV infection.
- Understanding hormone-microbiome effects on mucosal immunity and HIV susceptibility – The female genital track includes healthy bacteria referred to as the microbiome. These bacteria interact with the immune system and help prevent disease. Recently Charu’s lab received CIHR funding to study how sex hormones and hormonal contraceptives influence the vaginal microbiome and the effect this has on HIV susceptibility. This is a collaboration with the University of Manitoba, the University of Nairobi and Women’s Health in Women’s Hands.
Work Environment and Collaborations:
Charu Kaushic is a Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster University. She has a strong research partnership with Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, and both this community-based organization and the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario have collaborated with her team to help shape her research agenda. Charu also collaborates extensively with Rupert Kaul, another OHTN funded scientist, whose work focused on similar mucosal tissues, particularly in the gut and rectum.
Charu Kaushic holds an OHTN Applied HIV Research Chair focused on HIV prevention approaches targeted for women ($750,000; 2013-2018). First funded by OHTN in 2002.