Intensive HIV drug resistance training boosts capacity for Papua New Guinea

News | Published on 30 Nov 2022

The Kirby Institute and St Vincent’s Hospital were pleased to host two colleagues from Papua New Guinea to undertake intensive HIV drug resistance training.

ACT-UP PNG, Dr Janet Gare and Helen Keno in the St Vincent's HIV Reference LaboratoryDr Janet Gare and Helen Keno in the St Vincent's HIV Reference Laboratory

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has the highest burden of HIV in the Pacific region, and HIV drug resistance has proven particularly problematic for those currently on or about to commence HIV treatment.

ACT-UP PNG is a research collaboration between the Kirby Institute and the PNG Institute of Medical Research (PNGIMR), funded by the DFAT Centre for Health Security. It is tackling HIV drug resistance through strengthening the laboratory and public health workforce capacity for point-of-care HIV viral load testing and early infant diagnosis, as well as HIV drug resistance testing.

As part of ACT-UP, Dr Janet Gare and Helen Keno from the PNGIMR spent three weeks in Sydney under the expert guidance of scientists from St Vincent’s Hospital and the Kirby Institute.

“This training is critical to building laboratory capacity in Papua New Guinea and enhances existing local capabilities in HIV drug resistance surveillance,” says A/Prof Angela Kelly-Hanku who is co-leading ACT-UP PNG with Dr Janet Gare of the PNGIMR.

Dr Janet Gare says, "there have been significant inroads made in PNG to better understand the HIV epidemic, including the high burden of HIV drug resistance. However, it is crucial that as part of a laboratory strengthening initiative, Papua New Guinean researchers and laboratory scientists are supported to remain up-to-date in the latest HIV drug resistance testing and surveillance techniques. I’m looking forward to bringing these new skills home to PNG where its most needed.”

The NSW State Reference Laboratory for HIV at St Vincent’s Hospital is a designated WHO Regional Reference Laboratory for HIV drug resistance.

“The training focused on DNA sequencing technology to identify the presence of drug resistance in samples collected in PNG on dried blood spots (DBS) with a view to transfer the technology to the PNG setting in the near future,” said A/Prof Cunningham. “This initial visit the PNG scientists to observe a range of molecular pathology tests used in infectious diseases diagnosis and management.

Medical scientists from St Vincent’s Hospital have now developed a relationship with colleagues from PNG and will provide ongoing laboratory mentorship and support while the technology is developed in-country.

ACT-UP PNG, cutting dried blood spots for HIV drug resistance testing trainingCutting dried blood spots for HIV drug resistance testing training 

ACT-UP PNG, Helen Keno preparing samples for HIV drug resistance testingHelen Keno preparing samples for HIV drug resistance testing

The Kirby Institute also hosted a hybrid face-to-face meeting of more than 20 ACTUP-PNG investigators from Papua New Guinea, Queensland and NSW over two days in late August, with the meeting providing a valuable opportunity for research presentations, ongoing collaboration and future planning.

ACT-UP PNG teamAssociate Professor Angela Kelly-Hanku, Helen Keno, Melissa Schulz and Dr Janet Gare

A highlight of the information-packed meeting was the excellent presentations from ACT-UP's research and PNGIMR staff on expanding access to point-of-care HIV viral load and early infant diagnosis testing as well as early data on HIV drug resistance among newly diagnosed patients as well as those with unsuppressed HIV viral loads.