Margaret Hosie and her seven-strong team at Glasgow University Veterinary School have been awarded £228,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council over three years to support work into feline immunodeficiency virus.
At any one time, half a million of the UK's 6 million cats have FIV, the feline version of HIV. And, just like humans with HIV, some cats suffering from FIV live symptom free for many years. However, they can easily transmit the virus if they bite other cats during skirmishes.
It is precisely the difference between infected cats that are relatively fit and well and those that go rapidly downhill after infection that interests Dr Hosie.
There is an FIV vaccine, but it is not 100 per cent effective. Consequently, the only sure way to protect a cat is to keep it indoors.
"FIV is a significant problem for sheltered cats, in particular. If they carry FIV, they cannot be rehomed because they are a potential source of infection. Unfortunately, such cats might need to be put down," Dr Hosie said.
Although the funding Dr Hosie has received relates specifically to FIV, the research may inform the understanding of HIV.
Dr Hosie has found that many insights can be transferred to the human virus. A substantial part of her team's work relates to comparison of the similarities and differences between the two viruses.
"FIV and HIV belong to the same group of viruses, namely the lentiviruses, so findings from cat work can provide useful information for human cases," Dr Hosie said.
"We are developing a vaccine-testing model for FIV that is intended for use in HIV to test the level of immunity conferred by a vaccine."