Jamie Scott, a Simon Fraser University professor and Canada Research Chair in molecular immunity, and three international collaborators are getting a hefty financial boost in their efforts to develop an effective HIV/AIDS vaccine.
The United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded the four researchers $2.7 million to help them improve the effectiveness of a DNA-based vaccine that Marinieve Montero first conceived of eight years ago. Montero was a student of Scott's whose work was also funded by the NIH, the U.S.'s largest government-funded medical research agency.
Scott's current collaborators are at the University of the Basque Country, the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine and the University of California, San Francisco.
The researchers will use their new funding to strengthen a vaccine they've made from a DNA fragment taken from the HIV genome. The fragment encodes something that is highly prized in HIV/AIDS vaccine research. Called the MPER, it's a region of the HIV envelope that retains mutations at a very low level compared to the rest of the virus's genome, which continually mutates.
The MPER doesn't retain mutations because they would hamper the virus's ability to infect cells and duplicate itself.
"The real challenge to creating antibodies that fight a constantly mutating virus like HIV," explains Scott, "is finding a region on the virus's surface protein that rarely mutates. That provides an exposed site that does not change from virus to virus and that antibodies can attack. The MPER is such a site."
While other researchers have made vaccines that expose a subject's immune system to a synthetic version of the MPER, the vaccines have not triggered the production of antibodies that recognize and attack HIV.
Scott and her partners believe this is because synthetic MPER vaccines to-date have not replicated the viral MPER accurately, but say their new vaccines do a better job.
During the next four years, the researchers will test their improved MPER vaccines, which they hope will induce antibodies that are aggressive enough to prevent HIV from infecting lab subjects.