The multidisciplinary nature of the Hawaiʻi Center for AIDS made PhD Candidate Brooks Mitchell of Hawaiʻi Island realize how vital collaborations within and across different fields are to research success.
Brooks Mitchell, a doctoral student in the Department of Tropical Medicine at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), is helping to solve the mystery of why the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) “rebounds” when treatment is stopped or interrupted.
“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.
“In people living with HIV, antiretroviral therapy has long been shown to be very effective at keeping the virus under control,” Mitchell explained. “However, this treatment does not eliminate HIV from the body and the virus can stay dormant in infected cells, eventually recirculating in the blood when therapy is stopped.”
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 Ph.D. studies to assess different types of cells isolated from HIV+ 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.” Mitchell believes that greater understanding of these HIV reservoirs may inform targeted approaches in future curative treatments.
About his time in graduate school, Mitchell said: “I’m fortunate to have two great mentors, Dr. Cecilia Shikuma and Dr. Lishomwa Ndhlovu. The experience and opportunities that I have received as their graduate student have provided me with the confidence and tools needed to become an independent researcher.”
“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.”
The multidisciplinary nature of the Hawaiʻi Center for AIDS made Mitchell realize how vital collaborations within and across different fields are to research success. He appreciates being part of a research group consisting of physicians, nurses, basic scientists, pharmacists, psychologists, and social workers, all working together to conduct patient-centered research. “I have been fortunate not only to work with patient samples, but also be involved in the development of study protocols and the recruitment of study participants,” Mitchell said. “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 expects to receive his Ph.D. in Tropical Medicine in Fall 2019 from the University of Hawaiʻi – Mānoa, where he previously obtained a B.S. in Microbiology (2011) and an M.S. in Tropical Medicine (2015). “After my Ph.D.,” he said, “I plan to continue on to receive medical training and become a physician-scientist.”
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. Mitchell found out more about the program. “After talking to some of the faculty, the Trop Med department seemed like a great fit since its curriculum focused on areas of research that I wanted to further pursue during my graduate studies.”
An exceptional teacher inspired him
A graduate of the Kamehameha Schools – Kapālama campus, Mitchell credits an exceptional middle school teacher with inspiring him to become a scientist. “In the 7th grade, I had a really good but strict science teacher who did a monthly exercise where each student had to produce a question about something observed and related to the life sciences,” he recalled. First, before doing any work, the students were asked to give possible reasons for the observation in question. “By the end of the month, we had to research and write an explanation of the observation. There are many experiences and opportunities I have gone through that contributed to my decision to enter science, but in retrospect, I think this is what got the ball rolling.”
Mitchell grew up in North Kohala and Kamuela on Hawaiʻi Island. “I really enjoy my hometown of Kamuela,” he said. “I love the crisp, clean air, the pastureland, and the clear starry nights.” He also enjoys visiting Japan and experiencing that country’s food and culture. Outside of work, Mitchell has varied interests: “I enjoy swimming in the ocean, hiking, camping, and traveling with my wife Catherine.”