Emory Report
July 18, 2005
Volume 57, Number 35


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July 18, 2005
New projects tackle 'Grand Challenges' of hepatitis C, HIV

BY Holly Korschun

The Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, a major effort to achieve scientific breakthroughs against diseases that kill millions of people each year in the world’s poorest countries, is funding research projects at the Emory Vaccine Center, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and the Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH).

Rafi Ahmed, director of the Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) Eminent Scholar, will lead a project focused on discovering new immunological strategies for curing hepatitis C virus infections. The $12.5 million grant will include collaborators at Dana Farber Cancer Center/Harvard University, Columbus Children’s Research Institute, Rockefeller University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In addition, researchers at Yerkes and RSPH will collaborate with a research team at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) studying the strengths and weaknesses of natural immune response to HIV infection in order to guide HIV vaccine development.

Ahmed and his collaborators hope to develop a new therapy for hepatitis C that is more effective and affordable than current treatment for the liver disease. Scientists recently discovered that viruses causing chronic infections similar to hepatitis C are able to turn off the body’s natural immune defenses and then spread throughout the body virtually unchecked.

The project will focus on developing a therapy that switches back on the immune system’s natural defenses against hepatitis C. If successful, this approach could be applied to the treatment of several other chronic viral infections and possibly to certain parasitic diseases or to cancer.

Just as critical to creating deliverable technologies is the $16.3 million HIV vaccine project led by UAB’s George Shaw. Eric Hunter, Yerkes and Emory Vaccine Center scientist in residence as well as a GRA Eminent Scholar, will lead the Emory portion of the grant—approximately $1.5 million—with collaborators Susan Allen, professor of global health at RSPH, and Cynthia Derdeyn, also a Yerkes and Emory Vaccine Center scientist in residence.

“This project, which involves scientific collaborators at nine institutions in seven countries in the U.S., Europe and Africa, will decipher at a molecular level those aspects of the human immune response to HIV-1 that partially constrain virus growth as a means to identify which responses must be elicited by an effective vaccine,” Shaw said. “The project provides us with an opportunity to examine in a comprehensive and coordinated fashion the body’s immune response to the virus, and hopefully, to find chinks in its armor.”

“Emory is uniquely positioned to make major contributions to this research program, and we are excited to continue working with our collaborators at UAB,” said Hunter. “We have established a strong research program at Yerkes and the Emory Vaccine Center to investigate HIV transmission and early infection in two African cohorts led by Dr. Allen, and we hope to identify potential vulnerabilities as the virus and host struggle during what could be a small window for intervention.”

The Grand Challenges initiative was launched in 2003 with a $200 million grant to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (in partnership with the NIH), to help apply innovation in science and technology to the greatest health problems of the developing world.
Including the Emory projects, a total of 43 grants totaling $436.6 million have been offered for a broad range of innovative research projects in 33 countries. The ultimate goal of the Grand Challenges initiative is to create deliverable technologies—health tools that not only are effective, but also inexpensive to produce, easy to distribute and simple to use in developing countries.

“Emory’s participation in two projects within the Grand Challenges initiative, involving three components of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center—medicine, public health and Yerkes—demonstrates the breadth and strength of our research programs,” said Michael Johns, executive vice president for health affairs and CEO of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center. “We are proud of our important role in this effort to make significant discoveries that will curb challenging global diseases.”

Each of the 43 projects selected in the Grand Challenges initiative seeks to tackle one of 14 major scientific challenges that, if solved, could lead to important advances in preventing, treating and curing diseases of the developing world.

The 14 Grand Challenges address the following goals: developing improved childhood vaccines; studying the immune system to guide the development of new vaccines; developing new ways of preventing insects from transmitting diseases; growing more nutritious staple crops to combat malnutrition; discovering ways to prevent drug resistance; discovering methods to treat latent and chronic infections; and more accurately diagnosing and tracking disease in poor countries.