“I have been passionately engaged in HIV research, particularly within the realm of reproductive infectious disease, since my undergraduate years and hope to continue working in this field for the duration of my career to improve the lives of women living with HIV and their children.”

In July 2020, we welcomed a new cohort of postdoctoral fellows to the CTN family. Among them is Dr. Elisabeth McClymont, whose fellowship is sponsored by CANFAR. Here, we discover more about her passion for HIV research and the project she plans to undertake during her fellowship.

“During my undergraduate degree, I took a course titled ‘The Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic’, taught by CTN Investigator Dr. Angela Kaida. I was immediately enthralled with the multifaceted nature of the HIV epidemic,” said Dr. McClymont. “I continued to foster this interest through volunteer and research assistant positions at the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation and the Oak Tree Clinic with CTN Investigator Dr. Deborah Money. The opportunity to contribute to research projects on the reproductive healthcare of women living with HIV, and to see their impact, drove me to pursue a career that could support these women and their children. I’ve been passionately involved in research focused on women living with HIV ever since!”

Dr. McClymont is no stranger to the CTN’s work. During her graduate degree, she was involved in CTN 236: HPV in HIV Study, investigating the safety and immunogenicity of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine in girls and women age 9 years and older who are living with HIV.

“From that experience, I knew I wanted to continue researching viral co-infections and the role of vaccines in this population.”

During her time as a postdoctoral fellow with the CTN, Dr. McClymont will be investigating cytomegalovirus (CMV) transmission among women living with HIV and their children.

CMV is one of the most common viral infections, present in an estimated 40-100% of people worldwide. In those with healthy immune function, the virus goes unnoticed and does not cause symptoms. However, in those with compromised immune systems (uncontrolled HIV, leukemia, newborns), the virus can cause health complications including gastrointestinal infections and neurological disorders.

“The earlier stage of vaccine development for CMV brings different and interesting questions of how to optimize a vaccine to best suit people living with and without HIV,” she explained. “Understanding the natural CMV transmission dynamics in women living with HIV will help to inform that optimal vaccine design.”

Dr. McClymont clarified that there are several reasons why vaccines should be optimized for women living with HIV:

  • There is an increased risk of congenital CMV infection in HIV-exposed infants and an even greater increased risk of congenital CMV infection in infants with HIV. CMV is the most common congenital infection globally and is a major cause of childhood hearing loss and neurocognitive disability.
  • The potential negative effects of CMV disease in adults living with HIV are well known.
  • Even in the absence of overt CMV disease, and after controlling for HIV viral load and CD4 count, there remains a significant association between CMV infection and mortality in people living with HIV.

In all, this project, supervised by Drs. Isabelle Boucoiran and Soren Gantt, aims to define the precise genomic data, routes, and probabilities of CMV infection in women living with and without HIV as well as their children. Through studying transmission events, the team can determine the viral load reduction required to prevent CMV transmission and which genotypes of CMV should be targeted by a vaccine.

“Our findings will ensure that the parameters of a successful CMV vaccine are described not only for the general population, but also for women living with HIV, who are particularly vulnerable to CMV infection,” Dr. McClymont said. “I hope that the knowledge gained from this project will inform the development of an effective CMV vaccine and ultimately help to reduce the enormous global health burden of CMV infection.”

Her past experience and ongoing work with the CTN lay the perfect foundations for Dr. McClymont’s future plans to continue working in reproductive infectious disease, with a focus on co-infecting viruses and the use of vaccines among women living with HIV.

“Advances in the field of reproductive infectious disease have been significant over recent decades; for example, the introduction of HPV vaccination, increased understanding of the vaginal microbiome, and trials of possible CMV vaccines,” she explained. “I aim to ensure that the data to support novel interventions and improved care are produced keeping women living with HIV front of mind.”

You can keep up to date with Dr. McClymont’s work by following her on Twitter!

Written By:

Hannah Branch

Ms. Hannah Branch joined the communications department in the fall of 2019. She holds a degree in Human Biology from the University of Birmingham and has over eight years’ experience working in science and health. Starting her career as commissioning editor of two medical journals, Hannah has since worked in other medical communications and PR roles, developing training materials and campaigns across a variety of health care areas.