The importance of developing an effective HIV vaccine cannot be overstated. The statistics are sobering: over 35 million are infected worldwide; approximately 2 million people are infected each year; the estimated death toll from the virus thus far is 36 million; around 1.5 million died from HIV/AIDS in 2012; over 700 children become HIV infected each day (http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/hiv/facts/en/).
While antiviral medications, prevention education and behavioral interventions have provided help in mitigating HIV progression to AIDS, a vaccine is the Holy Grail. VIDD Associate Member Dr. Nicole Frahm, housed at the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN), studies people’s immune responses to HIV in order to inform vaccine design.
“We are trying to find an HIV vaccine,” Frahm said. “It is the best tool for halting the HIV pandemic.”
Frahm oversees the HVTN’s laboratory program here in Seattle, which focuses on the cellular immune response to HIV infection. The difficulty in vaccine research from the laboratory perspective is that the field really doesn’t have a good handle on what to look for. A major focus of the lab program is to identify correlates of protection (CoP), which are immune markers that indicate protection from infection. RV144, the first HIV vaccine trial to show protection, allowed the ability to propose CoPs.
“Trying to pinpoint what immune responses were responsible for that partial protection is a big part of what we do,” Frahm explained. “We were partially successful with RV144 by identifying a few immune responses that seemed to be associated with a decreased risk of infection.”