Solving a molecular mystery

Solving a molecular mystery

Understanding HIV/AIDS at a molecular level helps James MacLeod uncover big answers
September 15, 2006

Youth across Canada will learn about HIV/AIDS in their science and health classes this year. They’ll find out that over 40 million people live with HIV/AIDS. This awareness has set one student on an investigative path to tracking down a cure.

After learning about how HIV weakens a person’s immune system in his Grade 10 health class, James MacLeod wanted to know more—he wanted to understand why the body is unable to fight off this virus. He borrowed some university textbooks, but they could not satisfy his curious mind. James soon realized that to find the answers he was searching for, he’d have to do the investigating himself.

Though the Ottawa-area student wasn’t a newcomer to research, James knew a project of this nature would be more complicated than anything else he had done before. He would need equipment that wasn’t available to him at school or at home. Not only that, he would need some guidance. “So,” James says, “I put the idea in the back of my mind.”

Fortunately, he did not have to store his idea away for long. He attended the Canada Wide Science Fair in 2005 where he met peers who had carried out their science projects in research facilities, thanks to the Sanofi-Aventis Biotech Challenge (SABC). He immediately decided to participate in this competition.

With the assistance of his principal, guidance counselor, and the coordinator for the Eastern Ontario division of the SABC, 16-year-old James soon found himself working at the Ottawa Health Research Institute (OHRI) under the supervision of Angela Crawley.

His first task was to gain a better understanding of immunology—a subject not covered in high school. “He would continue to ask for explanations until he understood,” recalls Crawley. James then began his research on a molecule called CD127.

CD127 is of great interest to researchers studying HIV/AIDS because it resides on the surface of T-cells—the building blocks of the immune system. CD127’s role is to detect Interleukin-7, a hormone that sends survival signals to T-cells to encourage their reproduction and growth. When there is too much Interleukin-7 in the body, the amount of CD127 decreases. Consequently, the body doesn’t know it should produce more T-cells, and the immune system is weakened. Researchers, including James, are trying to understand why this happens so they can find a way to reverse the process.

To solve this molecular mystery, James looked at the genetic composition of CD127. In doing so, he may have uncovered a clue that will help clarify how the immune system is regulated and, in turn, make the body resilient to HIV/AIDS. James found an association between CD127 molecules and mRNA (a copy of DNA that carries information to cells to tell them how to make specific proteins)–mRNA decreases CD127 production when Interleukin-7 levels are elevated. “This discovery means that it may be possible to diminish or prevent the loss of CD127 on the surface of T-cells,” James explains.

His research has earned him many awards, including first place at the 2006 National Sanofi-Aventis Biotechnology Challenge. He has also earned high praise from Crawley. She believes James has what it takes for a young researcher to succeed in the “somewhat overwhelming” world of research—patience and persistence.

With so many achievements already under his belt and a plan to get his PhD, James is on track to uncover even more mysteries that could lead to lifesaving discoveries.

Learn more

For more information on HIV/AIDS, visit the Global Health Council.