WMS graduate becomes award winning HIV scientist

  • In one project, Mitchell is looking at lymph node fibrosis to understand the immunological mechanisms that may be driving fibrosis within the tissues. (COURTESY PHOTO/JABSOM)

  • Mitchell works with a group of scientists at the Hawaii Center for AIDS at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine. Hawaii Center for AIDS was established in 2009. (COURTESY PHOTO/JABSOM)

  • Hawaii Island native Brooks Mitchell is researching why those with HIV suffer earlier from diseases related to aging than those who are not infected with HIV. (COURTESY PHOTO/JABSOM)

WAIMEA — Originally motivated to excel by his Waimea Middle School history teacher Casey Boyett, Brooks Mitchell has been awarded the prestigious 2018 Koenig Foundation Award in Medicine by the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation Honolulu Chapter, including a $5,000 prize.

Now a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii Manoa (UHM) John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), Mitchell is researching why people with HIV are living longer with antiretroviral treatment, yet experience more chronic complications as they age.

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Mitchell, 34, grew up on Hawaii Island, attending Kohala Elementary and Waimea Elementary and WMS. There, Boyett — a former NCAA and NFL football player — took notice of Mitchell’s potential and inspired him to achieve. Boyett also suggested to his mother that he take the entrance exam for Kamehameha Schools, from which he graduated in 2002.

Mitchell went on to earn his microbiology degree at UH Manoa (UHM), and his Master’s in tropical medicine at the UHM John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). He plans to graduate with a PhD in tropical medicine and infectious diseases in spring 2019.

“HIV has been around for decades, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” Mitchell said. “This recognition of the work that our group is doing at the Hawaii Center for AIDS is an honor. It definitely gets me through those late nights in the lab,” he added with a chuckle.

At JABSOM, Mitchell is part of a team examining why those with HIV suffer earlier from diseases related to aging than those who are not infected with HIV.

“One of the projects that I’ve been working on is looking at lymph node fibrosis,” he said. “We excised the lymph nodes from 10 volunteers and conducted various immunoassays to understand the immunological mechanisms that may be driving fibrosis within these tissues.”

Fibrosis is not normal and interferes with the functionality of the tissue, according to Mitchell.

“Lymph nodes are important in the immune response, so when you have a lot of collagen deposits — which is the definition of fibrosis — occurring within these tissues it interferes with normal immune processes, which may result in persistent inflammation and may be a reason why we see a lot of chronic complications within our patients,” he explained.

Mitchell can’t wait to find out, because every day counts.

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“Until we cure HIV, they (HIV patients) have to live with it,” he said.

The ARCS Foundation advances science and technology in the United States by rewarding academically outstanding U.S. citizens pursuing research in STEM and health fields. ARCS Scholar Awards are unrestricted and may be used by the recipients for any purpose that advances their education or research.