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Winning Women: To kill a killer

Jun 11 2017 06:00
Sue Grant-Marshall

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 hardest-hit 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 HIV-infected 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.”

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