Since high school, Dr. Zabrina Brumme has been fascinated with HIV, the “simple yet adaptable” virus that takes on drugs and the body’s immune system alike.
“I graduated from high school in the mid-1990s and that’s when HIV was its most destructive and scary, the point where it was the leading cause of death, for example, among adult males in the United States,” Brumme said.
On Monday, she begins her new job as director of the HIV/AIDS laboratory program at the B.C. Centre for Excellence.
“We’ve known about HIV since the early 1980s, but it’s actually been with us for about 100 years total. We just didn’t notice until the ’80s.”
Part of Brumme’s new job will be searching for vaccines and cures for the virus.
Since 2009 Brumme has been an associate professor at SFU’s faculty of health sciences (molecular epidemiology of infectious diseases), a post she’ll retain.
“The B.C. Centre for Excellence is the leading centre that integrates HIV clinical care and research, education and advocacy,” she said.
“There’s no other centre like it in Canada. I’d say there’s no other centre quite like it in the world.”
Brumme comes highly lauded.
“Dr. Brumme has studied HIV through the lens of a molecular biologist and epidemiologist,” Dr. Robert Hogg, a professor at SFU’s health sciences faculty, said. “She has dedicated her career to understanding how HIV can adapt and evolve within populations.”
This is critical, he said, in the search for an HIV vaccine or cure.
Brumme’s work will involve overseeing studies into HIV at a molecular level, helping discover more personalized medicines, as well as mapping HIV genome data, on top of searching for vaccines and cures.
There are many therapies available in Canada and can be tailor-made for an individual, an area pioneered by Dr. Richard Harrigan, Brumme’s Ph.D. adviser who retired from the B.C. Centre for Excellence last year and who Brumme is replacing as lab director.
“The new job’s pretty daunting,” Brumme said. “I’m basically taking over the clinical program and the research program of a very eminent scientist in the field, Dr. Richard Harrigan.
“He was my mentor and over the last 20 years established the personalized medicine testing service for almost every part of Canada.
“Also, there’s a vibrant research program on HIV drug resistance, HIV transmission surveillance and, obviously, treatment as prevention.
“And we’ll expand that into additional areas. It doesn’t seem possible but the Centre will do even more research than before. We’re going to add HIV-cure research and vaccine research.”
The centre is part of a worldwide push known as 90-90-90: That 90 per cent of those infected will know they are; 90 per cent will be on antiretroviral medication; and 90 per cent will essentially be living with negligible levels of HIV.
It’s estimated the virus has killed 39 million people overall and 37 million are infected, but new infection rates have fallen from 3.4 million a year to 1.8 million, according to the International AIDS Society.
While there is as yet no cure for HIV, it has become a chronic, manageable condition, Brumme said, one that can be managed with one pill a day.
“Today, people are living with HIV, they’re getting older, there are a lot of other diseases, there’s a lot of other news and political stuff going on in the world,” Brumme said.
“HIV is fighting for that media space. We need to keep it in the news, keep up that pressure. It’s a solvable problem, we have the tools, we know what needs to be done, it’s just the implementation that’s the challenging part.
“We want to remind people HIV is still out there.”
As a girl growing up in Vancouver, Brumme was always interested in science, and when HIV and AIDS hit the front pages she became fascinated with the virus.
It was the epidemic of the time. Combination therapies were not available then and being diagnosed with HIV was a death sentence.
“It was very, very scary,” the Sir Winston Churchill Secondary alumnus said. “Everyone knew somebody who had HIV, it was bringing all sorts of issues we needed to talk about to the forefront.
“I actually wound up writing a thesis in high school on HIV.”
Studying for her B.Sc. in microbiology and genealogy at the University of B.C., she joined a co-op program and one day in early 1999 looked at the job postings.
One of the posts was for a research assistant at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
“I got the job,” Brumme said. “And that’s actually how I started in HIV research, almost 20 years ago now, at St. Paul’s Hospital.”
Graduate studies at UBC’s experimental medicine program followed.
After getting her Ph.D. in experimental medicine in 2006, she did post-doctoral fellowships at Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard, before returning to B.C. and joining SFU in September, 2009.
Most recently, Brumme led unprecedented research showing HIV strains in Saskatchewan were mutating so fast some patients went to being HIV-free to having AIDS in less than a year.
The Saskatchewan government responded with plans for more rapid diagnosis and therapy.
“HIV is a very small virus but it can do a lot of damage,” Brumme said.
It can adapt very rapidly to whatever you throw at it, such as drugs.
“The other thing HIV can do is develop mutations that also allow it evade our immune responses,” Brumme said. “Same process, but a whole new set of mutations.”
“Our immune systems mount a good fight against HIV, but ultimately we lose.”
Author: GORDON MCINTYRE