Responding to the challenge of HIV
Leen Mathys (K.U. Leuven) takes the challenge to find new strategies to prevent replication of the AIDS virus. This virus has developed resistance to all existing antiretroviral drugs, so the challenge remains daunting. Leen is one of the 3 new fellows of L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Belgium programme.
- Your research field is immunology and microbiology. When and why did you decide to pursue a career in research?
Since secondary school, I’ve been highly interested in science courses, such as biology and chemistry. This is due to the fact that I’m really curious and I like to figure out how things work, especially when it concerns the human body and its diseases. Therefore, I decided to study biomedical sciences at the Catholic University of Leuven. Although most of the courses were very interesting, I had a particular interest in immunology and microbiology. The practical experience I gained encouraged me to start a PhD in the department of immunology and microbiology, which will allow me to gain more laboratory experience and insights into certain fundamental aspects of life. Due the L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowship, I’m able to take a next step in the course of a research career.
- You have a particular interest in studying viruses. What is so special about viruses?
Although viruses have a diameter in the nanometer range, they are incredibly ingenious. They are able to adjust to different conditions and situations. Like parasites, they use the human or animal body to replicate themselves, thereby harming the host. Additionally, they have developed inventive evasion mechanisms to escape the host immune system. Compared to bacterial infections, viral infections are more difficult to treat because of the nature of their infections and their ability to quickly develop resistance to antiviral drugs.
- You work on HIV entry. Can you describe your research topic?
During my PhD, I will focus on the glycans (or in other words, carbohydrates or sugars) which are present on the envelope (or surface) of HIV. I will study the fundamental role of these glycans during viral entry, which is the process in which viruses enter a target cell. In the case of HIV, this is a human CD4+ T-lymphocyte, the cornerstone of our immune system. It has been shown that molecules which bind these glycans have an anti-HIV activity. Therefore, I will investigate these carbohydrate-binding agents, their concrete mechanism of action, their antiviral activity and their resistance profile. My goal is to contribute to the development of new and potent carbohydrate-binding agents, as a novel class of antiretrovirals.
- Can you tell us more about the research on HIV in Belgium?
HIV-related research is performed in almost every Belgian university. I haven’t been around long enough to know the details, but at Leuven, there are at least two labs. I did my masters thesis in the lab of Prof. Zeger Debyser, where I did research on HIV integration. The lab of Prof. Jan Balzarini at the REGA institute in Leuven, where I will do my PhD, performs fundamental research on several steps occurring in the HIV life cycle, such as HIV entry. They are focused not only on fundamental aspects, but also on the implementation of this knowledge for the development of new antiretrovirals. I am really grateful to be able to work in an environment that enables and encourages top research. During the PhD, I intend to gain more experience in experimental research on HIV and to contribute to the treatment of patients infected with HIV — after all, those are the people we do it for.
- As a young scientist, what do you believe will be the most important challenges of the next century for the scientific community?
In the field of the biomedical sciences, I think persistent attention will be needed for the treatment of existing and arising infectious diseases, such as HIV. Additionally, cancer and age-related pathologies will remain important due to the worldwide ageing of the human population. However, I also think that the exact sciences will gain in importance due to the threat of biological weapons and global warming. Additionally, the exploitation of alternative water and nutritional sources will become even more important as the human population keeps on growing and the environment changes.