'Playing in the sandbox' yields major AIDS breakthrough

December 20, 1999

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada -- Rajeet Pannu will never forget that night in 1997 when he checked his e-mail and opened up an attached image from his friend Dr. Alshad Lalani in San Francisco. Lighting up the screen was a picture of two plates-one white, one a glowing blue-with a single-word message: Eureka!

The image clearly and unmistakably proclaimed a major scientific discovery. The blue stain indicated a relative of human smallpox specific to rabbits, called myxoma, had infected cells through the same entryway used by the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV. If scientists can shut the door on myxoma, it may be possible to do the same for AIDS. That link could point the way to an AIDS vaccine.

Lalani and Pannu first began speculating on the link between the two viruses when both were graduate students at the University of Alberta, Canada. Pannu in biochemistry and Lalani in virology. But what began as a "sandbox science" experiment, has now turned into a career-making breakthrough for the two young scientists and others who helped prove their findings. The results were published in the December issue of Science.

Helen Everett, also a University of Alberta doctoral student helped verify the results. Dr. Bob Gallo, co-discoverer of HIV, had an article published in Science in 1997, which identified the chemokine receptors used by the AIDS virus to enter human cells. Lalani happened to be working on myxoma at the time, and Pannu was bold enough to ask the question, "What if...?"

There was a buzz going around when Gallo's paper came out, he says. "We sort of deluded ourselves into thinking that while we're doing our PhDs in other things, we could also solve the AIDS problem at the same time-that was our little fantasy."

With the help of another friend who was working on HIV, Lalani and Pannu first tried to cripple the virus by inhibiting its chemokines-small proteins on its surface- thereby preventing it from entering through the chemokine receptor. The first round of experiments, however, went nowhere.

In 1997, Lalani's supervisor Dr. Grant McFadden moved to the University of Western Ontario, and Lalani followed him to finish his thesis. But the potential link between myxoma and HIV continued to haunt him. He contacted another of his former University of Alberta classmates, Dr. Chris Arendt, then working on AIDS research at New York University. Arendt genetically engineered mouse cells with human chemokine receptors and Lalani soon succeeded in infecting the cells through the receptors.

"Those mice cells were the best thing that ever happened," says Lalani. "All of a sudden the whole plate went blue and .I freaked!" He was finally ready to share his experiment with McFadden, who was visibly "flabbergasted," says Lalani. McFadden immediately designed a series of experiments to verify the results and push the project to publication.

The University of Alberta in Edmonton is one of Canada's premier teaching and research universities serving more than 29,000 students with 6,000 faculty and staff. It continues to lead the country with the most 3M Teaching Fellows, Canada's only national award recognizing teaching excellence, and with the most Academic All-Canadians, students who successfully combine academics with varsity athletics.
For more information, please contact:
Roger Armstrong, Office of Public Affairs,
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
1 (country code for Canada)-780-492-3808

University of Alberta

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