Thirty per cent of Africa's population is HIV positive and fifty per cent of those infected suffer from peripheral neuropathy - nerve damage which can render patients unable to walk and often unable to work, causing widespread hardship.
Little is known about what causes neuropathy even though it is a common complication of diabetes.
Professor Patricia Price, from UWA's School of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and fellow researcher Peter Kamermann from Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), have established that the development of neuropathy is linked to an HIV patient's height, age and to variations in the gene 'TNF'.
Using genetic screening and the height and age of 400 HIV patients tested in Johannesburg, Price and her team have developed an effective risk assessment tool that can explain 33% of a HIV patient’s risk of developing neuropathy.
Further genetic analysis - undertaken in Perth - will shed light on the mechanism by which neuropathy develops which may also lead to effective treatments for neuropathy.
The prevalence of neuropathy in African HIV patients is increased by use of the (low-cost) HIV drug stavudine which is known to cause long-term irreversible side-effects. The recommended replacement drug tenofovir is less toxic and equally effective but significantly more expensive.
Effective risk assessment will allow medical staff to assign the more expensive treatments to the high-risk patients, so that neuropathy will become less common.
The project will now progress with UWA PhD student Hayley Goullee.
Photo (by Emma O'Brian): a Neuropathy patient is assessed for vibration sensation at the feet and ankle reflexes.