Chapel Hill - Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have won a five-year federal grant totaling more than $12 million to develop a safe and effective vaccine against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Division of AIDS, in Bethesda, Md., is one of only three large HIV Vaccine Research and Design grants awarded by the agency this year.
Over the next five years, a team led by Dr. Robert E. Johnston, professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the UNC-CH School of Medicine, will apply $12.35 million to study a novel vaccine method that is showing promise in early tests on monkeys.
The vaccine approach under study at UNC is built around a disabled, safe version of the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEE). In the wild, the tropical microbe infects horses and is sometimes carried to humans via mosquitoes.
Johnston and Microbiology/Immunology research associate professor Dr. Nancy Davis studied VEE for about a dozen years, developing candidate vaccines against the virus. Their work led them to believe it might be modified for use as a safe vaccine vector. Now it appears that their notion is correct.
Johnston and his colleagues are using a cocktail of VEE replicon particles (VRP) as a vector to carry the vaccine's molecular payload into the immune system. First, they modified the virus by removing about one-third of its genes. They then inserted genetic material taken from a pathogen, using as a test case simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV). In rhesus macaque monkeys, SIV causes a disease that is similar to AIDS in humans.
"The idea behind vaccination is to trick the body into thinking it's already
had the disease once before. That's what vaccines do," Johnston explains. "They
present the body with proteins from a disease organism and induce the body to
respond immunologically in various ways to these antigens. Then when the
Contact: Lynn Wooten
University of North Carolina School of Medicine