July 22, 2011

Emory to lead new AIDS vaccine research unit

The consortium's work will build on recent significant discoveries in the AIDS vaccine field.

Emory will head a new consortium formed with a $26 million National Institutes of Health grant to develop an effective HIV/AIDS vaccine.

Eric Hunter, co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research and a member of the Emory Vaccine Center, will lead the Emory Consortium for AIDS Vaccine Research in Nonhuman Primates, comprised of vaccine researchers from Emory and partner institutions, funded by the five-year program project grant.

The research will be conducted primarily at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

More than 90 percent of all HIV infections worldwide occur via mucous membranes, predominantly through sexual contact. To develop an effective vaccine, scientists must understand the viral-host interaction during the initial time of mucosal infection.

"By the time HIV-infected individuals begin experiencing the symptoms of acute HIV infection, this critical time of opportunity has passed," says Rama Amara, co-principal investigator of the consortium and a researcher at the Emory Vaccine Center and Yerkes Research Center. "Rhesus macaque monkeys provide an effective model for studying mucosal viral infection and ways to stimulate an early protective immune response."

The researchers will study how to develop a vaccine that can prevent the earliest stages of mucosal infection from simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) in nonhuman primate models. SIV is similar to HIV in humans.

The consortium's work will build on recent significant discoveries in the AIDS vaccine field, including recent Emory discoveries led by Amara and consortium member Bali Pulendran. A vaccine trial in Thailand completed in 2009 showed a modest degree of protection against HIV in humans.

In order to develop a more effective vaccine, however, researchers need to further explore the aspects of the immune response in animal models as well as in human clinical trials, Hunter explains.

"Developing a safe and effective preventive HIV/AIDS vaccine is still a critical part of the fight against this challenging disease that affects more than 30 million people worldwide," says Hunter.

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