From parasites to HIV, doctor and her team are unlocking how the immune system picks its battles

As an infectious disease immunologist and assistant professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Calgary, Constance Finney’s lab is full of “puzzles” waiting to be solved. Her research is primarily focused on how the immune system makes critical choices when it’s fighting more than one infection at a time.

“A lot of us may only have one [infection], but if you think about a lot of people who don’t have access to health care, or are in the developing world… they [can] have loads,” says Finney.

The importance of co-infection research lies in the fact that these ‘bugs’ are studied in the lab one at a time, but in the real world, a person can have four or five at the same time.

“Our bodies are then trying to battle each of them, and our immune system is making decisions based on that all the time,” says Finney.

Finney’s lab is currently focusing on two parasites that each affect different ends of the immune system in one of their projects. These parasites are toxoplasma, which can affect humans but are most devastating to livestock, and the Heligmosomoides polygyrus (a type of intestinal worm). These two parasites “don’t [usually] kill you, but they make you ill enough that you don’t do very well,” Finney says.

A sample of the human papillomavirus (HPV) under a microscope. Finney’s lab has recently been experimenting to see how this ‘bug’ is affected by the presence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in a shared environment. Photo courtesy of Ed Uthman, Creative CommonsThe lab is also working on another, more “human dedicated,” co-infection project as well, says Finney. It looks at how the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a virus that can lead to mucus membrane warts, and sometimes cancer, is affected by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which infects the immune system, destroying white blood cells, and can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Finney finds co-infection so interesting because there aren’t a lot of people looking at it, and without the understanding of how multiple infections interact, research that is applied to the human population more often than not “falls flat.”

The research is far from simple, but Finney keeps coming back.

“It’s the uncertainty of it all, and having to figure it out, it’s a constant puzzle. Some people hate that, they’re like, ‘Oh, I just want a straight answer.’ [I enjoy] that I come in every day and it’s something different.”

This passion for understanding the immune system’s interaction with co-infection can be found in Finney’s past published work surrounding the interaction between malaria and HIV in humans, “Chronic HIV Infection Impairs Nonopsonic Phagocytosis of Malaria Parasites.”

According to the research of Finney and her collaborators from the University of Toronto, certain cells in the immune system are vital in the fight to destroy the malaria parasite. If those cells aren’t functioning properly, then progress will never be made.

In her paper “Chronic HIV Infection Impairs Nonopsonic Phagocytosis of Malaria Parasites,” Finney discusses research that proves the presence of HIV in the body does, in fact, negatively impact the immune system’s ability to fight off the malaria virus. Photo courtesy of CDC Global, Creative CommonsThey have also discovered that the presence of HIV did, in fact, impact the cells necessary to rid the body of malaria.

“What was nice was that we had time points. We had the [HIV positive] volunteers come in before they started treatment and after they were on treatment. After they were on treatment for six months we could see the cells were doing a lot better, so our paper demonstrated that if people can get treatment [for their HIV] in a timely manner, the aspect of the immune system that is trying to fight off the malaria can be improved,” says Finney.

What made this project unique was the fact that Finney and her collaborators were testing human malaria parasites on actual blood from HIV positive people. They weren’t doing artificial HIV injections, and weren’t using non-human malaria samples, so the results they found are more accurate to what would actually be seen in humans.

One of these collaborators, a scientist at the Toronto General Research Institute who worked alongside Finney throughout the HIV/malaria co-infection paper, Dr. Lena Serghides, vouches for the extensive effort the unique research took, although it wasn’t void of fun.

“It took us a long time just to get the samples into the study, but it was really fun working with Constance because we would get these blood samples and [have to] get a control [sample], and most of the time we bled ourselves, and it was a procedure that took a whole week. It was pretty intense, but she’s very meticulous and that’s great to see in a scientist. She was so great at doing the exact same process every time,” Serghides says.

The viruses combined in this petri dish may seem miniscule to the human eye, but the findings we can glean from their interactions all culminate to answer bigger questions about how the immune system works, and how the scientific community can better serve people who experience co-infection. Photo courtesy of Umberto Salvagnin, Creative CommonsDespite the difficult workload the project insisted upon, from extracting immune cells from human blood samples, to growing malaria parasites, and combining it all in search of important new findings, Finney still loves the challenge that her field presents.

The paper was a success, but the results are only one cog in a very large machine, according to Finney.

“As with all of our research, we think it’s super cool, but it’s [a little piece] of a big picture.”

Once there’s enough of a body of research, that culmination can help influence public policy and provide background for making decisions in public health.

“[Our] little bit adds to someone else’s little bit, and eventually we have a much better idea of what’s going on, and then people can make better informed decisions.”

Even though the work is a collaborative effort, and it takes many researchers to illuminate the inner workings of an immune response during co-infection, Finney loves it, and is glad the topic is gaining popularity within the scientific community. “We underestimate the importance of co-infection [research]. Drug resistance is a massive problem right now, it’s on the rise, so it’s likely that co-infection will be on the rise as well.”

Thumbnail courtesy of NIAID, Creative Commons.

trathgeber@cjournal.ca

The editor responsbile for this story is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca