Tropical Medicine PhD candidate hopes to solve HIV mystery

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brooks mitchellBrooks Mitchell

A student from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) will earn his doctorate in tropical medicine this month as he works to help solve the mystery of why the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) “rebounds” when treatment is stopped or interrupted.

Brooks Mitchell, a Kamehameha Schools Kapālama graduate of Kamuela on Hawaiʻi Island, has poured himself into the research. “Understanding where HIV hides, and what cells are involved in its persistence, remains a topic of intense interest in the field and has become a current focus of my research,” Mitchell said. The study of viral reservoirs in HIV infection is motivated by the fact that the virus is not eradicated by current treatment, although it can be reduced to undetectable levels in the blood.

Mitchell, with other researchers at the Hawaiʻi Center for AIDS, is investigating which types of blood cells may harbor HIV despite optimal antiretroviral therapy. He uses a method that he developed during his PhD studies to assess different types of cells isolated from HIV-positive individuals who are on treatment.

“I determine the number of cells that are infected and produce HIV, as well as estimate the amount of HIV produced by each infected cell,” he said. Mitchell believes that greater understanding of these HIV reservoirs may inform targeted approaches in future curative treatments.

“The opportunity to work with healthcare providers and patients has been an important experience because it is a reminder that the research being conducted should be relevant to both the investigators and, more importantly, the people living with HIV.”

Mitchell developed an interest in infectious diseases and immunology as an undergraduate while majoring in microbiology and working in a clinical microbiology laboratory. Some of his professors and the technical director of the lab where he worked were affiliated with JABSOM’s Department of Tropical Medicine. “After talking to some of the faculty, the tropical medicine department seemed like a great fit since its curriculum focused on areas of research that I wanted to further pursue during my graduate studies.”

Mitchell is expected to earn his PhD in tropical medicine in fall 2019. He previously earned a BS in microbiology and an MS in tropical medicine from UH Mānoa.

“After my PhD, I plan to continue on to receive medical training and become a physician-scientist,” added Mitchell.

Read about some of Mitchell’s influences and inspirations in the full story on the JABSOM website.