The Department of Biomedicine

BBB Seminar: Birgitta Åsjø

A 30 year involvement in HIV research 

Birgitta Åsjø
Section for Microbiology and Immunology, The Gade Institute, University of Bergen

Retroviruses have long been known to cause various forms of malignancies in animals and in spite of much research and hard work scientists were unable to identify a human retrovirus. It was not until 1979 that HTLV-I was isolated. At the same time in the US many young gay men died unexpectedly from infections caused by severe immunosuppression of unknown etiology. By the summer of 1982, scientists had convincing evidence that this acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) must be caused by a blood-borne and sexually transmitted virus. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was isolated and characterized in 1983.

In 1981 I defended my PhD-thesis at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. In my thesis I described how two variants of the mouse retrovirus ”Moloney leukemia virus” caused two different forms of leukemia and lymphoma. With a solid knowledge in how to culture retroviruses, I decided to change my research from mouse to human retrovirus and as the first scientist in Sweden I started to isolate HIV from AIDS patients in 1984. In the scientific community this period was characterized by enormous enthusiasm whereas in the society people were scared and terrified of the risk of getting infected.

In 1992 I started my new appointment as professor at UiB. My HIV research was focused on virus-host cell interactions, virus characterization, effects of antiretroviral therapy on the immune system, and characterization of the interplay between HIV and various Mycobacteria subspecies on immune cells.

In my lecture I will discuss the story of the origin of HIV and present some of the major breakthroughs in relation to brief presentations of the work performed by my PhD-students.  The outstanding ”Tonsil project” resulted in three doctoral degrees: Bård Røsok, Anne Ma Dyrhol Riise and Pål Voltersvik. Carol Holm-Hansen characterized HIV subtype F isolates from the catastrophic epidemic among children at orphanages in Romania, and Sharad Pathak convincingly demonstrated in his thesis work that infection with M. tuberculosis, in contrast to M. avium or M. paratuberculosis, is particularly bad in combination with HIV. Vidar Ormaasen’s thesis was a study on mortality, morbidity and predictors of clinical outcome in patients in Oslo.

Finally, I will present the possibilities for developing a HIV vaccine and what we can learn from naturally simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV)-infected monkeys.

Chair: Nina Langeland , Dean, The Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry