TO KILL A KILLER

LIT­TLE In­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed Pro­fes­sor Lynn Mor­ris hopes, with her HIV vi­rol­ogy team, to con­trib­ute to the dis­cov­ery of a vac­cine against Aids in the not too dis­tant fu­ture, writes

CityPress - - Business -

Clad in blue jeans, the tall and ath­letic Pro­fes­sor Lynn Mor­ris takes long strides down a cor­ri­dor lined by glass-fronted lab­o­ra­to­ries where, un­der her watch­ful eye, just some of the many tri­als are be­ing con­ducted that may one day pro­duce an anti-HIV vac­cine.

“I hope to be part of that team so we can put a stop to the 2 mil­lion new HIV in­fec­tions that oc­cur an­nu­ally across our planet,” she says.

Mor­ris heads the HIV vi­rol­ogy sec­tion at Johannesburg’s Na­tional In­sti­tute for Com­mu­ni­ca­ble Dis­eases, and is also a re­search pro­fes­sor at Wits Univer­sity.

She men­tions the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s fig­ure of 35 mil­lion global HIV deaths. “It is one of the big­gest threats, other than cli­mate change, that we face on earth to­day,” she adds.

Medicine can now treat HIV/Aids, but de­vel­op­ing a vac­cine against it has eluded the best brains in the world for years. So, as the hard­esthit HIV/Aids coun­try in the world, to have our own sci­en­tist work­ing on a vac­cine is a tri­umph.

She ex­plains that pos­si­bly the big­gest break­through in the field, in the past seven years, has been the dis­cov­ery and sub­se­quent study of an­ti­bod­ies found in some HIVin­fected peo­ple.

A few make good an­ti­bod­ies “that we have been able to iso­late and pro­duce in the lab­o­ra­tory, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to use them for pas­sive im­mu­ni­sa­tion”.

Tra­di­tional vac­cines, such as those for measles, mumps and rubella, ac­tively stim­u­late the body to make an­ti­bod­ies that neu­tralise or in­ac­ti­vate the virus.

“But we haven’t been able to make an HIV vac­cine that does this.

“What we are do­ing now is us­ing mod­ern tech­nol­ogy in lab­o­ra­to­ries to mass-pro­duce an­ti­bod­ies to pro­vide peo­ple with im­mu­nity against HIV. This is why it is called pas­sive im­mu­nity,” says Mor­ris.

But the process in­volved is com­pli­cated and ar­du­ous. Clin­i­cal trial par­tic­i­pants “are in­fused with the an­ti­body in­tra­venously via a drip ev­ery two months for two years.

“We’ll know the re­sults of these tri­als within the next four years. But that is just the first part of the process and we ob­vi­ously need to make this eas­ier to ad­min­is­ter.”

The next phase in­volves many steps that need to be fol­lowed be­fore it is li­censed.

“There are also other vac­cines be­ing tri­alled that use the more tra­di­tional ap­proach. So, in terms of a vac­cine avail­able to the pub­lic, we are, at the very ear­li­est, talk­ing about a decade from now – and that is only if ev­ery­thing goes well,” em­pha­sises Mor­ris.

She and her team are also putting these an­ti­bod­ies into bac­te­ria that nat­u­rally colonise the vagina and test­ing them in the body for anti-HIV ac­tiv­ity.

With a 28-page CV, the mod­est sci­en­tist was pre­sented last week with the Harry Op­pen­heimer Fel­low­ship Award for this project. The R1.5 mil­lion award will en­able her team to work on a vagi­nal pro­bi­otic that will hope­fully be used to pre­vent HIV in­fec­tion in women.

The British-born pro­fes­sor moved to South Africa from Glas­gow with her par­ents when she was five years old.

Af­ter ma­tric­u­lat­ing from Hyde Park High School, Mor­ris be­came the first mem­ber of her fam­ily to at­tain a ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion when she en­rolled for a BSc in mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy and zool­ogy at Wits.

She ob­tained a schol­ar­ship to do a PhD at Bri­tain’s Ox­ford Univer­sity and grad­u­ated in 1984. Fol­low­ing that she was awarded a Royal So­ci­ety Fel­low­ship to com­plete a three-year post­doc­toral de­gree in im­munol­ogy in Aus­tralia. She re­turned to South Africa in 1993. Mor­ris re­laxes from the stresses in­volved in her in­ten­sive work by be­ing in­cred­i­bly ac­tive. She was an Ox­ford blue (row­ing) and has par­tic­i­pated in eight Dusi Ca­noe marathons.

She’s run the Com­rades Marathon, sum­mited Mount Kil­i­man­jaro, com­pleted the Cape Epic Moun­tain Bike Race and two years ago did the Berg River Ca­noe Marathon.

An in­di­ca­tion of her in­ter­na­tional stand­ing comes from a lead­ing Amer­i­can vac­cine re­searcher, John Mas­cola.

He re­cently said: “When we do fi­nally learn how to make an ef­fec­tive HIV vac­cine, it is likely we will look back at Lynn’s work as the piv­otal first step to­wards un­der­stand­ing how to gen­er­ate pro­tec­tive an­ti­bod­ies against HIV.” PI­O­NEER Lynn Mor­ris Sue Grant-Marshall Win­ning women black

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