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Researchers receive funding to develop HIV vaccine

Duke University Medical Center researchers have received grants totaling $37.2 million to continue work developing an effective HIV vaccine.

Duke researchers are working to develop a vaccine that is designed to prevent recipients from contracting HIV, which can cause AIDS—the syndrome that results in the progressive failure of the human immune system. Last week, researcher David Montefiori, professor and director of the Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Research and Development, received a five-year $24.6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—the largest of the three awarded grants. Montefiori’s research largely focuses on identifying the varying effectiveness of antibodies against different strands of HIV in hopes of developing a vaccine.

“One of the crucial aspects of the work that we do is look at the ability of the antibodies to block the many different strains of HIV... [which] allows people to identify the more promising candidates and to weed out the weaker vaccine candidates so more work can be done in the more promising approaches,” Montefiori said.

One of the major issues in prevention of HIV has been developing an effective vaccine that protects against the variations of the virus around the world, Montefiori said. There are nine major genetic variations of HIV, and when a patient becomes infected with two different types, they can combine into circulating recombinant forms, which make the vaccine development process much more complicated.

The World Health Organization has estimated that 34 million people worldwide are infected with HIV as of 2010, a number that has been steadily growing for years. The Gates Foundation grants will fund the Medical Center’s HIV and AIDS prevention work in the Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery program, which is an international network of researchers attempting to develop vaccines and clinical trials. The program was created by the Gates Foundation in 2006 and has awarded grants that support 94 institutions in 19 countries. Duke researchers joined the collaboration in 2006, when it received a $31.5 million grant that allowed the Medical Center to establish the Comprehensive Antibody Vaccine Immune Monitoring Consortium, which is led by Montefiori.

Another recipient of a Gates Foundation grant is Dr. Barton Haynes, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute and the Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology and Frederic M. Hanes professor of medicine and immunology. Haynes, who received a three-year $11.7 million grant, focuses on developing the next generation of HIV vaccines based on previous trials by examining immune cells from vaccinated people in order to determine which antibodies are effective. Haynes said he is currently analyzing antibodies from a vaccine trial carried out by the U.S. Army and the government of Thailand in 2009. Of 18,000 Thai citizens, 30 percent of participants were protected against the virus. Although that ratio of success was not high, the study contained important implications for vaccine development, he said.

“The trial gave us hope that indeed a vaccine could be made,” Haynes said.

The final grant recipient is Dr. Michael Frank, a professor of pediatrics and immunology, who was awarded a three-year $892,000 grant to study the HIV antigen for vaccine development.

Duke’s work to combat HIV does not end with development of this HIV vaccine, Montefiori said. It is part of a broader effort on campus to combat HIV/AIDS and raise awareness around the issues, especially given that December is HIV/AIDS Awareness Month. Programs such as “Know Your Status”—a student campaign that sponsors HIV testing with the Student Health Center—encourage awareness about HIV and offer free testing every Monday on campus.

“Our goals are twofold—to increase awareness of HIV on campus, as well as decrease the stigma around HIV testing,” said senior Ijeoma Agu, co-director of Know Your Status.

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