June 9, 1997

Vaccine center seeks to eradicate

many infectious diseases

Smallpox, polio, yellow fever. To most young adults in America, they sound like exotic diseases of a time long past. These crippling afflictions are no longer a threat in this country because vaccines were developed to prevent them. To fight the battle against today's infectious diseases, Emory is immersing itself in the vaccine development business with the creation of a new Vaccine Research Center.

"The idea is to create new technologies that will make our most challenging problems such as AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, influenza and respiratory viruses a thing of the past," said Rafi Ahmed, director of the center and professor of Microbiology and Immunology in the medical school. "Vaccines are also the most cost-effective way to prevent these diseases," he said. "We are even working on a vaccine for cancer."

Construction begins in August on the grounds of the Yerkes Center for a three-story building to house both the vaccine center and the Yerkes Division of Microbiology and Immunology. The vaccine center's location at Yerkes will ensure access to the population of monkeys needed for creating vaccines and take advantage of the extensive biocontainment and pathology support already in place.

The center will bring together under one roof some of the nation's best immunologists and virologists-several just recently recruited to Emory-to forge new discoveries for vaccine development. The program will also help foster communication among the nearly 100 researchers currently at the School of Medicine who work on understanding the complexities of the AIDS virus. An AIDS research office also will be created to coordinate all clinical and basic research efforts and to disseminate information.

"AIDS will be a major focus of the center," said Ahmed, "because a vaccine is the only way we'll ever be able to control this disease." Finding better treatments is also extremely important, he said, but drugs like protease inhibitors will never eradicate the disease because they are too expensive and difficult to administer-especially in Africa, India and Southeast Asia, which are home to 80 percent of the world's infected population. About 29 million people worldwide are infected with HIV.

Ahmed, recruited from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1995 as a Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) eminent scholar, is an internationally known scientist in viral pathogenesis and immunity and one of the world's leading experts on T-cell memory. His work on immunological memory is at the heart of vaccine research. Ahmed will bring to the Center up to $1 million in GRA funds for equipment.

Another recruit who will play an integral role in the vaccine program is Harriet Robinson, who joined the Yerkes faculty from the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to serve as chief of Microbiology and Immunology. A pioneer in vaccine development for retroviruses, Robinson became internationally known as the first person to demonstrate that purified DNA can be used as a vaccine. These vaccines are safe, inexpensive and stable, showing great potential for the AIDS virus. At the University of Massachusetts, Robinson's research formed the basis of a $42 million technology transfer agreement with Pasteur Meriuex. One of her priorities at Yerkes is the development of an HIV-1 macaque (monkey) model to test vaccines and drug treatments.

John Altman came from Stanford University this year to join the vaccine center as an assistant professor of Microbiology and Immunology. He has developed novel reagents to identify T-cells that respond to pathogens and recently used this technique to isolate and characterize killer T-cells against the AIDS virus. Altman will continue his work at the center.

Mark Feinberg, a physician researcher from the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), plans to come to Emory this summer. He trained with Nobel laureate David Baltimore, chairman of the federal AIDS Vaccine Research Committee and Robert Gallo, codiscoverer of the AIDS virus. Feinberg was slated to lead the NIH's new program on AIDS vaccine development, which gained national attention just weeks ago when President Clinton announced a federal campaign to have an AIDS vaccine within the next 10 years.

"Emory is very fortunate to get Robinson and Feinberg," said Yerkes Director Tom Insel. "Dr. Robinson is a great leader and an outstanding molecular virologist. Dr. Feinberg has an impressive background in basic vaccine development research. Both will be instrumental in translating the nonhuman primate AIDS research to the [clinical setting]." Robinson and Feinberg will eventually move their work with the Yerkes colony into human clinical trials at the Ponce Center, one of the nation's leading HIV outreach facilities.

The vaccine team has already held several meetings with scientists from NIH and will continue to coordinate efforts as their programs for an HIV-1 vaccine unfold.

Scientists at the new center will also collaborate with investigators at the Rollins School, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Medical College of Georgia, the University of Georgia, Georgia State University and many of the growing number of pharmaceutical companies in the state.

-Kate Egan

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