Retrovirus research lab

The Retrovirus Research Laboratory is situated in the Henry Wellcome Building at the CVR, University of Glasgow. Our main interests are the ways in which retroviruses cause disease; the immune response to infection; and the development of veterinary vaccines.

Much of our work focuses on the feline retroviruses, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukaemia virus (FeLV). We also have research projects focusing on:

  • development of novel adjuvants for companion animal vaccination,
  • feline calici virus (FCV),
  • lyssaviruses (rabies) 
  • viruses of non-domestic cats such as lions and pumas.

For information about our monoclonal antibodies and immunophenotyping services, see below.

Current research

Feline retroviruses

Margaret Hosie research

FIV is a widespread pathogen of both domestic cats and wild felids, and is the feline equivalent of HIV in humans. The clinical course of FIV infection is variable, depending on factors such as the infecting strain of virus and the age and health status of the cat.

We don't yet know why some cats rapidly develop AIDS, while disease progression is slow in others.  As there are an estimated 8 million cats in the United Kingdom, conservative estimates would suggest that at any given time at least half a million healthy cats may be infected with FIV or FeLV.

Our goal is to understand how FIV evolves in naturally infected cats as disease progresses — can we predict whether disease is more likely to progress in an individual cat depending on specific host or virus factors? Such information will assist veterinarians in practice, as well as cat rescue shelters re-homing FIV-infected cats.

The development of FeLV and FIV vaccines is a clearly a priority issue for the welfare of cats. As a direct result of the ground-breaking work of researchers at the University of Glasgow, vaccination against feline leukaemia virus is now available in veterinary practices throughout the country. Based on the success of these studies on FeLV, the Retrovirus Research Laboratory is now focusing on the development of an effective vaccine for FIV and the elimination of feline AIDS.

Research highlights: FIV vaccine

CRD-2 independent viruses graphTo investigate disease progression, we focused on studying a population of 44 privately owned domestic cats infected with FIV, in collaboration with Dr Annette Litster (Purdue University). Using assays to assess the strength and breadth of neutralising antibodies, we found that neutralising antibodies did not appear to influence the course of natural FIV infection. These findings argue against a role for neutralising antibodies in controlling infection and disease progression.

A commercial FIV vaccine is licenced in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan and we have conducted studies in order to understand how this vaccine affords protection against FIV infection. We analysed samples from cats vaccinated against FIV, in collaboration with Dr Julia Beatty (University of Sydney) and demonstrated that vaccination did not induce cross-reactive neutralising antibodies. Furthermore, in one Australian cat vaccinated against FIV, we identified and characterised a virus strain that we speculated might have overcome vaccine-induced immunity. We are currently testing methods to induce high levels of neutralising antibodies in order to develop improved vaccines.

CD134 virus receptorAnother notable finding was that the FIV env gene sequence was relatively stable following natural infection, perhaps explaining why many naturally infected cats remain healthy and do not progress to AIDS. Moreover, by examining the receptor usage of viral variants, we observed that sick cats were more likely to harbour viruses displaying a distinct receptor usage phenotype compared to healthy cats, echoing the switch in co-receptor usage observed during the progression of HIV infection. We are now developing an algorithm that may be used to predict the prognosis for individual cats infected with FIV, based on the properties of the infecting strain.

Overall, this research has broadened our understanding of natural FIV infection and highlights that much can be learned from studying the differences between the feline and human lentivirus infections. Such comparative studies will contribute to the design of novel, safe and fully efficacious lentiviral vaccines.

Emerging morbilliviruses of wildlife and humans

The rapid global spread of peste des petits ruminants virus (PPRV), from 1942 to the present day. Once restricted to West Africa, the virus now infects animals across Africa and the Middles East, Turkey, India and China. 

The global spread of peste des petits ruminants virus (PPRV)

In May 2011, the General Session of the Office International des Epizooties declared the world to be free from rinderpest virus, the causative agent of “cattle plague”. Rinderpest virus (RPV) is a morbillivirus, a close relative of measles virus (MeV). Like rinderpest virus, measles virus is now being considered for global eradication by vaccination. However, there is increasing concern that if such a vaccination programme was to be successful, the requirement for vaccination would cease. As a result, humans would no longer have cross-protection against zoonotic infections with closely-related animal morbilliviruses. Significant concerns have now been raised about the threat from the carnivore morbillivirus, canine distemper virus (CDV), a virus capable of infecting diverse species including dogs, ferrets, martens, lions, hyenas and seals. This ability to cross species renders CDV a significant threat to many endangered species of wildlife. Moreover, pathogenic CDV infections have been described in primates, raising the possibility of zoonotic transmissions to humans. There is now intense interest in the viral reservoirs of CDV and the degree of cross-protection conferred by MV vaccination as a means of guarding against cross-species transmission.

Neutralisation of morbilliviruses by antibodies is currently measured using a restricted subset of live viruses that grow readily in culture. Thus it is not possible to compare antibody responses to vaccine viruses with those against primary field strains of virus, making predictions of vaccine efficacy and likelihood of zoonotic transmission challenging. We have developed novel viral pseudotype-based assay systems with which serological responses to diverse animal morbilliviruses can be measured rapidly, with high sensitivity and specificity. Using this simple methodology, we are measuring neutralizing antibody responses against primary field strains of virus, novel emerging morbilliviruses, and unique biotypes and serotypes of virus for which assays are currently unavailable. We have developed parallel systems for diverse morbilliviruses; viral pseudotypes based on peste des petits ruminants (PPRV), CDV, RPV, MeV and phocine distemper virus (PDV), and target cell lines expressing the cognate receptors for each virus.

This project brings a comprehensive understanding of the spread of morbilliviruses between livestock and wildlife species. It addresses whether morbilliviruses are being maintained in atypical host species and whether these species are a source of infection for susceptible hosts. It provides epidemiological and biological data to inform future strategies for virus eradication by vaccination, illuminating the extent of virus spread and the likely species that will require to be vaccinated. The high-throughput assay techniques we employ build capacity in the UK for "rapid response" to emerging viral diseases.

Listen to Prof. Willett discussing morbillivirus research at the CVR here: CVR Podcast

Diagnostic tools

Monoclonal antibodies

Many of the antibodies generated in the Retrovirus Research Laboratory can be purchased from AbD Serotec Limited. The current list of reagents available is as follows:

Feline leucocyte differentiation antigens



Catalogue number


CD134 7D6 MCA2568 FC,WB
CD134-FITC 7D6 MCA2568F FC
CD134-A488 7D6 MCA2568A488 FC
CD134-A647 7D6 MCA2568A647 FC

























MHC class II




*CD4-FITC and CD8-RPE may be used for dual colour analysis of feline T cell subsets in a single tube format. The histograms below represent an analysis of T cell subsets in an FIV-infected cat using vpg34-FITC and vpg9-PE. Note the appearance of the "CD8low" sub-population (Immunology (1993), 78:1-6), a sub-population of CD8+ T cells thought to be CD8a  + b low (J Gen Virol. (1998), 79:91-94). This population is often observed in FIV infected cats.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus


Designation Catalogue number Applications
gp120 vpg68 MCA1351 IFA, FC, IP
p24 gag vpg50 MCA1353 IFA, IP, WB


Specificity Designation

Catalogue number

GST vpg66 MCA1352 WB, IP
GST-biotinylated vpg66 MCA1352B WB, IP

vpg66 will recognise fusion proteins generated using the pGEX-2T vector and is ideal for both immunoprecipitation and western blot analyses. The use of vpg66 to detect fusion proteins between the HIV-1 Nef protein and GST is detailed in Harris, M. and Coates, K.C. (1993). J. Gen. Virol. 74, 1581-1589 and Harris, M.P.G. and Neil, J.C. (1994). J. Mol. Biol. 241, 136-142.

Additional antibodies against feline leukaemia virus, distinct epitopes on feline CD4, FIV p24 or FIV gp120 are available. Further information can be obtained from either the Retrovirus Research Laboratory or AbD Serotec.


The Retrovirus Reseach Laboratory Flow Cytometry Service operates as an adjunct to routine haematology and is particularly useful where cases of leukaemia or lymphoma are suspected. Flow cytometry involves staining leukocytes from blood, effusions or aspirates with antibodies recognising cell surface markers that are specific for particular lineages of cells, for example T lymphocytes or B lymphocytes. The immunophenotype can be used to confirm that an expanded population of cells represents a malignant transformation rather than a reactive population responding to an infectious agent. In human medicine, an accurate diagnosis provides valuable prognostic and therapeutic information, particularly where chemotherapy is being attempted as is permits the accurate monitoring of the patient for the detection of minimal residual disease.

MGG staining Flow cytometry

The images show chronic lymphocytic leukaemia in a cat. A sample of peripheral blood was examined by flow cytometry. An aberrant population of B cell lineage (shown on the left) represented 85% of lymphocytes.

The Flow Cytometry Service will focus initially on feline and canine immunophenotyping. Samples should be submitted as EDTA anti-coagulated blood or body fluid.
For further information please contact Dr Brian J. Willett (0141 330 3274), or Mr Ronnie Barron (0141 330 6915) or e-mail us at the Retrovirus Research Laboratory).

Research group members

Ursula Arthur

Ursula Arthur
PhD Student 

Imogen Herbert

Imogen Herbert
PhD Student

Siyuan Hu

Siyuan Hu
PhD Student

Ellen Hughes

Ellen Hughes
PhD Student

Nicola Logan
Research Associate

Yasmin Parr
Research Assistant

Agnieszka Szemiel
Research Associate

Current grants

Information available in the CVR funding table.


  • Dr Annette Litster (Purdue University)
  • Dr Julia Beatty (University of Sydney)
  • Dr Yasuhiro Takeuchi (UCL)
  • Dr Masayuki Shimojima (University of Tokyo)
  • Dr Takayuki Miyazawa (University of Tokyo)
  • Dr Chet Tailor (The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada)