Old Joe will be turning red today, Thursday 1st December, to recognise World Aids Day, and to highlight some of the ongoing research taking place at the University of Birmingham.

HIV infects key cells of the immune system such as T cells. When enough of these cells are infected, the function of our immune system drops to a dangerous level, increasing susceptibility to infection by opportunistic pathogens and causing the condition known as ‘AIDS’.

Dr Isabel Nawroth, a researcher at the Centre for Human Virology, headed by Professor Jane McKeating at the University of Birmingham, is investigating how viral replication is affected by a low oxygen, ‘hypoxic’, environment.

It’s been found that like in normal cells, in T cells, the transcription factor ‘HIF’ is stabilised under hypoxic (oxygen deprived) conditions, which drives the transcription of genes the cell requires for survival. Importantly, also under this hypoxic environment, HIV replication is decreased.

Current antiretroviral therapy, more commonly known as ‘ART’, suppresses HIV replication in immune cells. This therapy however, is not curative as HIV can still exist in a latent state. If therapy is ceased, HIV will replicate again and the viral burden will increase dramatically.

New treatments are exploring the idea of ‘shock and kill’ therapies where cells are treated with an agent that can activate these latent pools of HIV. This then is subsequently followed by anti-viral therapies aimed to eradicate the virus. Dr Nawroth has found that this oxygen deprived environment has significant implications with regard to how the pools of latent virus can be reactivated, which may provide a new therapeutic target to consider for future combination ‘shock’ therapies.

Professor Jane McKeating, Director of the Centre of Human Virology explains, ‘These studies highlight a new role for oxygen tension to regulate HIV replication and sensitivity to anti-viral drugs that has the potential to impact our design and delivery of new therapies. Importantly, these observations are not unique to HIV and oxygen tension will influence the infectivity of other pathogenic viruses’

Tom Syder, spokesman for the Rainbow Network at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘AIDS continues to be a serious health crisis around the world, and in the UK it disproportionately affects LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) people. The Rainbow Network is very pleased that the University has recognised World AIDS Day, a global campaign to raise awareness of the pandemic, and as a network we remain committed to supporting and promoting the work of local organisations such as Umbrella Sexual Health Services who provide confidential advice and testing to decrease transmission of HIV in Birmingham and Solihull.’

Notes to editors

‘Old Joe’ is the affectionate name given to the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower located in Chancellor's Court at the University of Birmingham. It is the tallest free-standing clock tower in the world.

The Rainbow Network provides a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ staff and PhD students at the University to socialise, provide peer support, and advise the University on common issues affecting LGBTQ staff and students. The Network’s latest newsletter can be found here