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$3.5 million NIH grant supports AIDS vaccine research at UC Santa Cruz
Date:9/9/2009

SANTA CRUZ, CA--The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has awarded a $3.5 million grant for AIDS vaccine research to Phillip Berman, professor and chair of biomolecular engineering at the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

With the new five-year grant, Berman's group will follow up on promising findings they reported in the August issue of the Journal of Virology. The researchers identified a novel structural element in an HIV coat protein that could be useful for vaccine development.

Despite major efforts over the past 20 years to develop an AIDS vaccine, none of the vaccines tested in clinical trials has succeeded in preventing HIV infections. Berman oversaw one of those trials as head of research and development at VaxGen. Now he has gone "back to the drawing board" to take a new approach to AIDS vaccine development.

The focus of the research is on antibodies that are capable of neutralizing a wide range of HIV strains. Such "broadly neutralizing antibodies" are necessary to stop the virus because HIV is extremely variable, constantly evolving to evade the immune systems of infected individuals.

"One of the main hypotheses in HIV vaccine research is that if a vaccine could induce those broadly neutralizing antibodies, it would work. None of the current vaccines do that," Berman said.

Our immune systems are capable of making broadly neutralizing antibodies against HIV, but studies have found that this happens in fewer than 25 percent of infected individuals and not until six to 12 months after infection. By then, it's too late to stop the virus. "The antibodies have to be there before infection occurs. After the virus gets a foothold, it's too late," Berman said.

Berman's lab, along with collaborators at Monogram Biosciences of South San Francisco, developed a new method called "swarm analysis" to investigate the natural variations in the virus
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Contact: Tim Stephens
stephens@ucsc.edu
831-459-2495
University of California - Santa Cruz
Source:Eurekalert

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