PhD student’s HIV research earns international praise

Paul Mayne // Western News

Microbiology and Immunology PhD student Matthew Woods was recently awarded the International AIDS Society and the French National Agency for Research on AIDS and Viral Hepatitis Young Investigator Award in Melbourne, Australia, for his work around HIV research.

If you get a chance, ask Matthew Woods how his summer went.

In July, Woods, a PhD student in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, presented his HIV research at the International AIDS Conference, in Melbourne, Australia, before a crowd of nearly 14,000.

“I’ve done conferences before,” Woods said, “but not with this many people.”

A week prior to leaving, Woods found out he won the International AIDS Society and the French National Agency for Research on AIDS and Viral Hepatitis Young Investigator Award. The $2,000 award supports young researchers who demonstrate innovation, originality, rationale and quality in the field of HIV research.

And, if you believe good things happen in threes, Woods discovered upon arriving in Australia that Nobel Prize winner Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, credited with the co-discovery of HIV, would be presenting him his award.

“They took us backstage before the ceremony and said, ‘Just so you know, Françoise is going to present the award to you,’” said the 27-year-old Font Hills, Ont., native. “I was so excited. It was an honour to get to speak to her and have her recognize my work.”

Under the supervision of the Western professor Stephen Barr, Woods explores HERC5, a newly discovered human protein that exhibits potent antiviral properties, particularly against HIV. Through his research, he has shown, for the first time, HERC5 blocks HIV replication and has characterized the molecular mechanisms underlying HERC5’s antiviral activity.

“It’s actually a protein in the immune system of humans and we have shown that it actually traps the virus within the cells,” Woods said. “It’s always been there. Now, we are trying to figure out if certain people have different forms of this protein, which could explain why some people progress differently with HIV.”

His research could lead to developing drugs that mimic the affects of the protein and, in essence, giving those with HIV two extra lines of defense against the spread of the virus.

“What we’re doing here is still at the discovery stage, the initial groundwork,” Woods said. “We’re also currently looking at different patient samples of people living with HIV, to sequence the HERC5 protein to see if there are any changes in people who progress fast or those who progress slow.”

Barr, an HIV researcher, wasn’t surprised Woods won such a prestigious international award.

“Matthew’s positive attitude in the lab, passion for research, ability to take initiatives and his quick learning of new techniques and ideas are all excellent qualities of a good researcher,” Barr said. “I’m delighted to see his efforts rewarded in this way. I see nothing but great achievements in Matthew’s future and I cannot wait to read about them.”

Woods has always been fascinated with the interaction between the human immune system and foreign pathogens. During his undergrad at Western, he worked on an honours thesis, along with Barr, and “fell in love with research.”

“Once I began working here (Barr’s lab), I knew I wanted to continue doing this. It’s the passion of thinking you might be able to help someone someday, and also the idea that you’re discovering something for the first time,” he said. “I kind of say it’s like when you’re a kid and and looking into a pond and seeing things for the first time.”

While the recent recognition is flattering, it’s “not why you do it,” said Woods, who would like to have his own lab one day to continue his HIV research.

“At the conference, being able to get feedback with people living with HIV, I think, is important for a researcher – to listen to people who are actually suffering from what your research is focused on,” he said. “You have to start somewhere and the reason we’re doing this research is to help people with HIV; that’s our ultimate goal, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this.

“It makes you want to get back to the lab and work harder.”