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December 01, 2015

Researchers to test new way to protect people from HIV

The Medical Center is testing a new method to prevent HIV that scientists hope will boost the development of an effective vaccine for the virus, which infects approximately two million people each year, including 50,000 in the United States. 

The new study, led by the University’s HIV Vaccine Trials Unit (also known as the Rochester Victory Alliance), will test an experimental antibody against HIV. Traditionally, people get a vaccine, and researchers wait to see if they make effective antibodies in response to the vaccine. In the new study, researchers will skip that step and give people the antibody directly.

The antibody being tested, called VRCO1, is able to bind to HIV strains from around the world (there are more than 60 different strains) and block the virus from infecting cells. It has already proven effective in early studies: it prevented animals from getting infected, decreased levels of the virus in HIV infected patients, and didn’t produce any negative side effects or discomfort in the more than 100 individuals who have received the antibody so far. It’s considered a “broadly neutralizing antibody” because of its ability to neutralize a wide variety of strains of HIV.

Manufactured in a laboratory, the antibody is not made from live HIV, killed HIV, or HIV-infected human cells. It cannot cause HIV infection or AIDS or lead to a positive HIV test. The goals of the study, which hopes to enroll more than 80 participants who are at high risk of acquiring HIV, are to gather more information about the safety of the antibody and to test whether the antibody can prevent HIV infection. 

The research community is excited about the trial, called “AMP,” which stands for “Antibody Mediated Prevention.” Michael Keefer, director of the HIV Vaccine Trials Unit and principal investigator of the study says that it reflects the culmination of five years of intensive laboratory research at the National Institutes of Health and can be a bridge to developing an effective vaccine that makes broadly neutralizing antibodies in people.

“If the VRCO1 antibody works to prevent HIV, the field will prioritize efforts to design a vaccine that can produce the antibody in sufficient quantities,” says Keefer. “On the other hand, it is possible that we could find that controlling transmission of the virus might require a vaccine that produces more than one of these broadly neutralizing antibodies. Either way, this study will provide answers that are crucial for timely progress in the field.”

The study holds promise as a pathway to an HIV vaccine, says Michael Gottlieb ’73M (MD), associate clinical professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Gottlieb was the first researcher to describe AIDS in a published, scientific report. “The University of Rochester has a remarkable track record in HIV research and vaccine development, so it is easy to understand why the University was selected as a site for this important study.”

The University is one of 19 NIH-sponsored HIV Vaccine Trials Network sites conducting the research in the United States. It’s also being conducted in Africa and South America.

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