Daily, neurologist Chris Power at the University of Alberta in Edmonton boards an elevator in the lobby of the Heritage Medical Research Centre, gets off on the sixth floor and strolls down the corridor to a nondescript, but world-class, level-three-security biosafety laboratory (BSL-3). No one is granted admission to the compact, 37-square-metre lab unless he or she has a special identity card and has been trained to handle and work with dangerous substances. In Power’s case, it is the human immunodeficiency virus, which can lead to AIDS, and the hepatitis C virus.
“We grow HIV, West Nile and hep C viruses, which is very difficult to do,” says Power. “These diseases provide templates for understanding how viruses and the immune system interact. If we understand how the immune system works, we can improve treatments for these and other disorders.”
Power and his team have created a considerable body of new knowledge about the complex and mysterious dynamic between viruses and brain function. They are testing the effectiveness of some small molecules that could eventually become drug treatments for HIV and multiple sclerosis.
It is estimated that some 65 million people have been infected with HIV since it was first detected in the early 1980s. Approximately one million North Americans are currently infected, including 60,000 in Canada. The research being conducted in the Power lab is helping scientists better understand what goes on inside these patients at a molecular level.
Recently, for example, the research team established a clear correlation between HIV infection and a high risk of brain disease. According to estimates, more than 40 percent of patients with AIDS will develop some kind of neurological disorder, such as memory loss or tremors or chronic pain as the virus attacks their nervous system and, ultimately, their brain. Scientists like Power hope that the knowledge acquired through the study of one disease will eventually be applied to others, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
“There’s a complex interaction between infectious agents and the brain,” says Power. “If someone with Alzheimer’s gets an infection such as a cold or a urinary tract infection, the dementia gets a lot worse.”
To enable the advanced research that goes on in his lab, Power and his team have built special devices not readily available from manufacturers. “We’ve developed a facility that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” he says. “I’m very proud of it. We have investigative tools that are truly cutting edge.”
And these tools allow Power to get at the root of the research challenges he faces. “We can record electrical signals from cultured brain cells that are infected with different viruses. We can ask very fundamental questions about how a virus is injuring the cells. It’s pretty remarkable.”