In 2009, when researchers from the RV144 trial in Thailand announced they had found the first indication of a possible vaccine protection against HIV, their discovery was based on an immunization regimen pioneered by a University of Washington scientist more than two decades ago.
Dr. Shiu-Lok Hu, Gibaldi Endowed Professor of Pharmaceutics at the UW School of Pharmacy, created the “prime-boost” immunization method in the late 1980s while working at Oncogen. This method uses two vaccine components — a relatively harmless virus that delivers HIV proteins and primes the immune system, followed by booster shots of the HIV proteins themselves. This one-two punch approach activates both antibody and cell-mediated immune responses.
Now, as HIV/AIDS researchers worldwide seem to be moving closer to a possible HIV vaccine, Hu has received a vote of confidence from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for his contributions to the field. The foundation awarded Hu a $6.7 million grant that will enable his research team to join the Consortium for AIDS Vaccine Discovery (CAVD), an international network of scientists launched by the Gates Foundation to design novel HIV vaccine candidates and advance the most promising candidates to clinical trials.
Hu’s research project is entitled, “Unmasking conserved epitopes on HIV envelope protein for vaccine design.” Two co-investigators on the project are from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania: Dr. Jim Hoxie, professor of medicine and director of the Penn Center for AIDS Research, and Dr. Drew Weissman, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases. The third co-investigator is Dr. Shan Lu, professor of medicine, biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The goal of their four-year study is to build upon the success of the prime-boost strategy and to explore vaccine designs that may generate protective antibodies targeting the part of the virus it uses to bind to immune cells — the part widely considered the Achilles’ heel of the virus. Hu’s lab has previously shown that the removal of a specific glycan molecule on the envelope protein used by the virus to enter the host cell resulted in an enhanced ability of the mutant protein to induce neutralizing antibodies. Now Hu and his colleagues seek to uncover ways to further enhance this glycan-modified envelope vaccine design’s ability to provoke an immune response.
In other words, they hope to find a safe, effective vaccine that will help the immune system ward off HIV infection.
HIV infects more than 2 million people globally each year. Throughout the world, an estimated 33 million people are living with HIV/AIDS. While antiretroviral therapy can control progression to AIDS, it cannot cure or stop the spread of the disease.
“The successful development of safe and efficacious vaccines against these diseases represents our best hope for eradicating this pandemic in the long term,” said Hu. “The search for a vaccine is a humbling and daunting task as an individual scientist. But as a member of the CAVD and the AIDS research community, it is tremendously exciting and rewarding.”
Indeed, being part of the Consortium for AIDS Vaccine Discovery will allow Hu’s research team to tap into an international research network of more than 500 HIV/AIDS investigators across 94 institutions in 19 countries.
For his part, Hu has a highly active research program at the UW School of Pharmacy. He is currently part of three, multiyear, multi-institution National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases HIV Vaccine Research and Design grants, for which his contributions total more than $9.5 million.
This new Gates Foundation grant, said Hu, will allow his team to leverage the expertise, resources and infrastructure of the top scientists in the field.
“We all know the challenges we face to develop a safe and effective vaccine against HIV/AIDS,” he said. “However, I believe we can make a difference if we commit ourselves and work together toward this worthwhile goal.”
The UW School of Pharmacy is the fifth ranked pharmacy school in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. Ranked No. 9 among pharmacy schools in National Institutes of Health grant funding, its faculty secured more than $15 million in overall research funding in fiscal year 2011. The School of Pharmacy educates professional pharmacists, develops scientific leaders and serves the community through health outreach and education.