Emory Report
April 16, 2007
Volume 59, Number 27

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April 16, 2007
Vaccine research earns top SOM awards for Ahmed and Robinson

by holly korschun

Groundbreaking vaccine research by Emory scientists over the past decade may soon be responsible for preventing some of the most challenging and deadly infectious diseases of our time.

Internationally renowned vaccine scientists Rafi Ahmed and Harriet Robinson were honored April 5 by School of Medicine Dean Thomas Lawley at the Dean’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture and Awards Ceremony. The award is the most prestigious and celebratory honor in the medical school.

Ahmed was recruited to Georgia in 1995 as a Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar and director of the Emory Vaccine Center. Under his leadership, the Emory Vaccine Center has become one of the largest and most successful academic vaccine centers in the world.

Robinson came to Emory in 1998 as chief of the Division of Microbiology and Immunology at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and as Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine, as well as a senior scientist in the Emory Vaccine Center.

Lawley praised the two scientists “not only for their professional achievements but also for the ideals and values embodied by their careers.”

“Your reputation for brilliance and rigorous science is matched by your reputation for being a warm, caring mentor and one who doesn’t care who gets the credit,” he said of Ahmed.

Lawley pointed to Robinson’s “remarkable scientific achievements, her dedication to world health, her loyalty and service to our institution, and a life that balances the love of family with a passion for science.”

A pioneer in the field of immune memory, Ahmed has made significant discoveries about how immune memory cells are created, how long they survive and how they differentiate. These discoveries have opened the doors for new therapeutic approaches for a number of infectious and non-infectious diseases.

Recently Ahmed’s laboratory has shown that immune responses have “off switches” that dampen immune responses in chronic infections. Groundbreaking studies of these signals have shown that blocking them can help clear the chronic infections. Ahmed and his colleagues are studying the potential to manipulate these switches to clear HIV and hepatitis C infections.

Robinson was one of the first scientists to demonstrate that purified DNA could be used as a safe and effective vaccine. Over the past 14 years, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robinson has devised an innovative HIV vaccine that uses two components — a DNA-based inoculation used to prime the immune response and a pox virus (MVA) used to boost the response. Both the DNA and MVA components express the three major proteins of HIV. The vaccine is designed to vaccinate people who are uninfected and to prevent AIDS by rapidly controlling the HIV virus should they become infected. Robinson intends the relatively simple design of the vaccine to make it cost effective for global use.

Trials with a prototype HIV vaccine in monkeys at Yerkes showed excellent protection against the development of AIDS. In 2001, the Vaccine Center created GeoVax Labs Inc. with the charge of commercializing the vaccine. Beginning in 2003, GeoVax has sponsored human clinical trials of the vaccine through the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, which is supported by the NIH. A low-dose phase one trial combining DNA priming with MVA boosting that started in April 2006 has demonstrated an acceptable safety profile and unexpected high response rates. A full-dose trial is under way and should be complete later this year.