Dr. Simone Gonçalves da Fonseca is an assistant professor of Immunology at the Federal University of Goiás in Brazil. She was recently awarded an amfAR Magnet Grant, which aims to attract expert collaborators from outside the HIV research field. Working with a systems biologist, Dr. Gonçalves is using state-of-the-art methods of data computation to understand how a rare group of individuals control their HIV without antiretroviral therapy (ART). Like many HIV researchers, she is also applying her scientific expertise to the COVID-19 pandemic. amfAR spoke with Dr. Gonçalves about her HIV research and her recent work on the novel coronavirus.
amfAR: You are the recipient of our most recent Magnet Grant. Tell us about the study?
Dr. Simone Gonçalves da FonsecaDr. Gonçalves: My main interest is to understand how individuals who control their viral load to undetectable levels, named elite controllers, establish protection while infected with HIV. They keep CD4+ T cell counts high for many years without ART. We can learn about protective immunity from elite controllers. By using a systems biology approach, the study will provide a broader picture of host immunity, permitting analysis of a vast amount of data to identify molecular pathways involved in protection.
I will collaborate with a systems biologist, Dr. Luiz G. Gardinassi from the Federal University of Goiás, to investigate immunological and metabolic responses of HIV-infected individuals who are naturally resistant to the development of AIDS, in the absence of ART. We are using public high-throughput data combined with state-of-the-art computational methods to interpret the results. We expect to identify processes driving resistance to infection, which can inform robust therapeutic targets and help with the development of an efficient vaccine. We are very grateful to amfAR for this grant.
amfAR: What are you working on now?
Dr. Gonçalves: Right now, our lab is focused on identifying the mechanisms involved in HIV control such as the role of the intestinal microbiome and microbial metabolism, and the pathway involved in the maintenance of long-term memory CD4+ T cells in elite controllers. We are also studying the impact of drug use on immune responses of people living with HIV. And, we just started COVID-19 work focusing on the immune responses of individuals infected with SARS-CoV-2.
amfAR: Which aspects of your HIV background are you bringing to the fight against COVID-19?
Dr. Gonçalves: In SARS-CoV-2 infection, around 80% of infected individuals do not develop disease. One hypothesis is that they have protective immunity similar to elite controllers in HIV infection. I want to compare the immune responses of controllers (asymptomatic) versus those who develop COVID-19 with the goal of finding what protects these individuals. Using computational strategies and methods like those used in the HIV project funded by amfAR, we have already re-analyzed data from COVID-19 patients and compared the data to those patients infected with the SARS-CoV-2 and influenza viruses. We hope to identify some pathways involved in the pathogenesis of COVID-19. The results from this study are currently under review.
amfAR: Is there anything you'd like our supporters to know?
Dr. Gonçalves: amfAR has provided an excellent and exciting opportunity for us in Brazil to advance our research. We are confident that the results of this financial support will have a significant impact toward achieving a cure for HIV. We are thankful to amfAR and the donors for their support.