Research focuses on transmission of HIV to newborns

HIV positive mothers may transmit the virus to their baby anytime during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding. What exactly triggers this transmission and causes some newborns to become infected but not others is unknown.

What causes the HIV virus to be transmitted from HIV positive mothers to some babies but not others is part of a mystery School of Dentistry researcher and immunologist Shokrallah Elahi hopes to shed some light on.

“We know how the virus can be transmitted, but what causes this transmission during and post pregnancy is unknown,” says Elahi.

Elahi spent couple of weeks of July in Uganda, Africa, where five to eight per cent of the general population has HIV. He is investigating the role of a newly discovered subset of cells in HIV pathogenesis – singling out the mother to child transmission.

“We’ve already shown that these newly identified cells (immature red blood cells or CD71+ erythroid cells) are abundant in human cord blood and in the placenta. Our preliminary data shows that these cells impact HIV replication,” he says. “Therefore, we believe the high presence of these cells in the placenta and cord blood may impact the transmission of HIV to the newborn.”

As part of the study founded by CIHR in collaboration with Dr. Michael Hawkes (UofA), blood samples will be taken from new mothers and cord blood at the time of delivery. Blood samples will  also be collected from the newborns. The blood samples will be processed for Elahi’s lab in Kampala at the Walter Reed Military Medical Centre laboratory, and the remainder will be shipped to the School of Dentistry. Elahi expects the processing to take six months, and then another three months to analyze the data.

We’re hoping understanding the molecular and cellular mechanism of HIV mother to child transmission, might enable us to find solutions to reduce the chance of this happening,” says Elahi.