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MedUni Vienna works with the University of Lagos to study side-effects of HIV treatments

Project within the frame of the Africa-UniNet research network
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(Vienna, 11 March 2021) MedUni Vienna is working with the University of Lagos to study epigenetic changes associated with HIV treatments in Nigeria. The aim is to get to the bottom of the sudden onset of infertility among HIV-positive men who were given combined AntiRetroviral Treatment (cART). The project is being carried out within the frame of the Africa-UniNet research network and is financed by the Science Ministry.

Africa-UniNet was initiated by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research and implemented by the Austrian Agency for International Cooperation in Education and Research (OEAD). The aim of this new network is to build up long-term, sustainable scientific partnerships between Austrian and African universities and scientific institutes. In the first call put out by Africa-UniNet in the autumn of 2020, 52 research applications, covering many different scientific disciplines, were submitted and assessed.

The "EpiSperm" project is a new joint initiative between MedUni Vienna and the University of Lagos in Nigeria. Mark Wossidlo from MedUni Vienna's Division of Cell and Developmental Biology will coordinate the project and he and his team will conduct this research project together with the Nigerian team at the University of Lagos under the leadership of Edidiong Akang. The research application is entitled "The epigenetics of the spermatozoa of HIV-I infected men".

Infertility as side-effect of HIV treatment
HIV continues to be a global threat, with an estimated 38 million people infected and 33 million deaths (WHO 2020) so far. Nigeria is the country with the second-largest HIV epidemic in the world (1.8 million in 2019, UNAIDS) and is still seeing a high number of AIDS-related deaths (150,000 in 2017, UNAIDS). A lot has already been done here to make combined antiretroviral treatment (cART) available to as many HIV-positive people as possible, turning HIV into a controllable chronic disease and enabling sufferers to live a long life.

However, over the last few years, it has been observed that HIV-I-positive men on cART suffer from sudden-onset and as yet unexplained infertility. These studies have also identified epigenetic irregularities in the blood of these patients, although it is not clear whether these are due to HIV itself or to the treatment (cART). The observed epigenetic changes are primarily changes in DNA methylation, a well studied epigenetic marking, which supports our genetic code in every cell of the body and essentially acts as an "On-Off switch" for control of the genes produced. In this case, defects in DNA methylation can cause abnormal gene activity that can lead to many different diseases and even to the development of cancer. Moreover, like all epigenetic modifications, DNA methylation is stably inherited by all daughter cells, which, in the case of an abnormality, can result in so-called "epimutations". These epimutations might then be passed on to future generations via the germ line and this is the subject of the current research.

The aim of this study is to identify potential epigenetic changes in DNA methylation in the sperm of HIV-positive men on CART, in order to gain a better understanding of what causes this emerging infertility. The results will help to demystify the existing stigmatisation of cART (also a big cultural problem, since many HIV-positive men refuse treatment so that they can have children) and identify any potential health risks for subsequent generations.

It is also hoped that this study will encourage new scientific and educational partnerships between Austria and Nigeria in the fields of epigenetics and infectious diseases.

About Africa-UniNet
Every year, the participating Austrian and African universities and research institutions are invited to tender for two-year bilateral and multilateral network projects. The Science Ministry finances 20 of these projects to the tune of around €500,000.

Within the frame of Africa-UniNet, the Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Research finances 20 Austrian-African research projects up to a total of €500,000. Africa-UniNet was set up by the Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Research (BMBWF) in collaboration with OeAD GmbH (Agency for International Cooperation in Education and Research) and the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences Vienna.

In 2020, Africa-UniNet had 51 members: 33 institutions from 11 African countries, 18 from Austria. A further 7 institutions have applied for membership in 2021. The projects encompass partnerships in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, DR Congo, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa – and cover a broad range of disciplines. Research questions and topics are: medicine, health, economy, sociology, social work, gender equality, climate change, agriculture, fisheries, food security, water resource management, art, and many others. What is common to them all is cooperative partnership and the orientation of content towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).