The front line in hiv/aids research: vaccines

This image demonstrates the possible forms and genetic pathways the HIV virus can take (indicated by the red lines) before its evolution is dominated by mutations that make the virus unique (indicated by the black lines). The shapes at the end of the black lines represent virus samples from different eras of the epidemic. The triangles are the most recent.
Image courtesy of the Mullins lab

A future without AIDS may one day be possible thanks to researchers like James Mullins, Ph.D., who is working tirelessly to develop effective vaccines against the disease. Mullins, a UW professor of medicine in the Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was the first scientist to obtain a federal grant to research AIDS back in 1983.

“The more I read about this new disease, the more similar it sounded to an immunodeficiency disease — caused by feline leukemia virus — which I was studying at the time,” Mullins says. “Feline leukemia virus is a retrovirus, and I suspected that AIDS was caused by one as well.”

Mullins’ hunch turned out to be right, of course. Caused by the HIV virus, AIDS destroys white blood cells, leaving the body vulnerable to a host of diseases. According to the World Health Organization, 34 million people around the world are infected with the deadly virus.

Thirty years since obtaining that first grant, Mullins continues to study HIV. In addition to developing vaccines, his lab seeks to understand how HIV persists — how it hides in people who have been treated — as well as how it establishes itself in a new host.

“HIV is a highly evolved pathogen,” says Mullins. “By the time the immune system recognizes it and responds, the virus has already mutated.” In fact, HIV mutates at least 1,000 times faster than the human genome, a major challenge for vaccine development.

“Vaccines work against certain features of a virus,” says Mullins. “If a strain doesn’t have those features, then a vaccine won’t have a protective effect.” Another obstacle is that HIV is not very immunogenic, meaning the virus fails to provoke much of a response from the body’s immune system.

Despite these challenges, Mullins and his team persevere. Currently, they’re focused on developing the next generation of prophylactic vaccines — vaccines capable of warding off AIDS. “In 2014, we’ll be performing a clinical trial to see if one of our vaccines is safe and whether it elicits responses from the immune system,” says Mullins.

If this trial is successful, Mullins will investigate whether the vaccine protects against HIV, a next step that will require significant financial investment but could have immeasurable benefit to society.

Whether or not the vaccine trial proves effective, one thing is certain: Mullins is dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of HIV. “Not only is it intellectually engaging work, but HIV is a puzzle that’s critically important to solve,” he says.

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