$77 million NIH grant launches new HIV/AIDS vaccine center

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The U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded a new seven-year grant to a team of researchers at The Scripps Research Institute, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, and several other institutions around the country. The funding—expected to total more than $77 million—will be used to establish the Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology & Immunogen Discovery (CHAVI-ID).

CHAVI-ID researchers will study immune responses that prevent infection with HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—or control the virus in infected individuals. The team will also generate vaccine components to induce such immune responses and provide broad protection against HIV.

The World Health Organization estimates that 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV.

Sanford-Burnham’s role

Adam Godzik, Ph.D.

Other team members will carry out the biological work for CHAVI-ID, but Sanford-Burnham scientists, led by Adam Godzik, Ph.D., will manage the massive amounts of information that will be generated. With approximately $7 million from the grant, they will be developing and maintaining a central database for the entire project and developing tools to integrate and analyze the data. By acting as a central hub, Godzik’s team will ensure rigorous and efficient initiation and completion of CHAVI-ID projects.

“Our role in CHAVI-ID will allow us to implement and further develop our tools for data integration, biological data mining, and data analysis, all in the context of one of the most fascinating problems in 21st century biology,” said Godzik, who is also a professor in Sanford-Burnham’s Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Center.

A scientific challenge

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) by binding to, entering, and ultimately leading to the death of T helper cells, immune cells necessary to fight off infections by common bacteria and other pathogens. As HIV depletes the body of T helper cells, the immune system fails and common pathogens can become potentially lethal.

An effective HIV vaccine would induce antibodies against the virus prior to exposure to the virus. These antibodies would circulate through the blood, and track down and bind to the virus, preventing infection of T helper or other cells.

Most of the antibodies that the body produces to fight HIV, however, are ineffective. The surface of the virus is cloaked with sugar molecules that prevent antibodies from slipping in and blocking the proteins the virus uses to latch onto a cell and infect it. To make matters more complicated, HIV is constantly mutating, so there are multiple HIV strains that antibodies elicited by any vaccine must be able to sense and destroy.

Harnessing the immune system

Nonetheless, rare, broadly neutralizing antibodies against HIV do exist, as scientists at Scripps Research and other institutions have shown.

Under the auspices of the new grant, the team based at Scripps Research will conduct research on antibodies and B cells, the cells that make antibodies. This work will guide the development of immunogens—substances that evoke an immune response—capable of eliciting protective antibodies to HIV.

“Although AIDS drugs have extended the lives of many, an effective HIV vaccine could truly eliminate the threat of HIV in both developing and developed countries,” said Scripps Research professor Dennis Burton, Ph.D., a prominent HIV expert who will lead the new center. “We look forward to making significant progress toward this goal in the coming years.”

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In addition to Burton and Godzik, the CHAVI-ID team includes: Rafi Ahmed of Emory University; Michel Nussenzweig of The Rockefeller University/Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Bruce Walker of The Ragon Institute; and Ian Wilson of Scripps Research. Other scientists working on the project include Dan Barouch of Beth Israel Medical Center; Shane Crotty of La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology; Daniel Kaufmann of the Ragon Institute; Julie McElrath of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Bali Pulendran and Guido Silvestri of Emory University; and Chris Scanlan of Oxford University; as well as Sal Butera, William Schief, and Richard Wyatt of Scripps Research.

Read Scripps Research’s original press release here.

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