Could clues to the cure for HIV come from studies of cats? A team of scientists in the Department of Microbiology, Pathology and Parasitology in NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine think they might.

Drs. Mary and Wayne Tompkins, Gregg Dean and Mary Jo Burkhard make up a world-renowned National Institutes of Health-funded research team studying Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), a member of the HIV virus family. The research Drs. Tompkins, Burkhard and Dean, along with eight graduate students, are conducting will not only provide important knowledge for prevention and treatment of a major cat disease, but also help develop a vaccine and other therapies that might transition to human medicine.

“What most people understand about HIV is that the carrier of the virus experiences a loss of a cell population called T-cells. These cells are necessary to initiate an immune response to protect individuals against infectious agents,” explains Mary Tompkins. “If you don’t have many T-cells, then you will have trouble mounting an immune response to any harmful germs. HIV slowly wipes out the infected person’s T-cells. Eventually, it’s impossible to fight off any illnesses.”

FIV-infected cats go through the same sort of disease syndromes as humans with HIV. Unlike HIV, which was most likely contracted from monkeys, FIV is a naturally occurring infection in cats. This means that the virus has been in the cat population for many years. As with humans, symptoms may be delayed for years. The main difference between HIV and FIV is the method of transmission. In general, FIV transmission occurs through bite wounds, not through sexual contact. (FIV cannot be transmitted to humans.)

Burkhard has developed a model of FIV transmission in vaginal mucosa of cats and is researching the cells harboring and transmitting the virus in their oral, vaginal and rectal mucosa. Her search for a way to interrupt the transmission of FIV in mucosa could lead to a method of stopping HIV- positive mothers from infecting their babies during birth and nursing.

Viral genome research done by the FIV team is essential to discovering more about the transmission of viruses. Through partnerships with Triangle-area companies AlphaVax and Trimeris, as well as multinational companies such as Fort Dodge Laboratories, Schering Plough and Pfizer, NC State’s FIV research has become a very important component of HIV/AIDS research. “We must understand the genomics of pathogens in order to discover cures for disease,” explains Dr. Gregg Dean. “Coaxing immune systems to respond to pathogens is key to creating a vaccine for FIV and HIV.”

Wayne Tompkins summarizes, “A major current focus of our research is to determine how FIV/HIV infection destroys the T-cell immune system. As we unravel the mystery of how these viruses impair the immune system and cause AIDS, we will be in a stronger position for designing vaccines to prevent the diseases, as well as therapeutic modalities to treat them.”

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