Annual Report 2013: Ending Cancer Together

Cape Town, South Africa will soon become an important location in Fred Hutch's effort to stop the global spread of HIV.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA WILL SOON BECOME AN IMPORTANT LOCATION IN FRED HUTCH’S EFFORT TO STOP THE GLOBAL SPREAD OF HIV.

Hutch Cape Town lab accelerates vaccine work

In Cape Town, South Africa, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center staff have spent the past year building a state-of-the-art lab that will be one of Africa's most advanced scientific facilities.

The lab will play a critical role in the quest to find a vaccine that ends HIV's deadly march. It will analyze results from upcoming trials of innovative new HIV vaccines and will help African scientists advance their own research. This new lab illustrates how Fred Hutch is constantly seeding new, international collaborations that bring researchers together to take on some of the world's most pressing health challenges.

"We wanted to test the vaccines in a place where they could have the biggest benefit, and we needed the infrastructure to do that without shipping samples all the way back to Seattle," said Dr. Julie McElrath, a Hutch senior vice president who is director of Fred Hutch’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division and directs the Hutch’s HIV Vaccine Trials Network’s Laboratory Center.

Headquartered on Fred Hutch's Seattle campus, the HVTN is the world's largest network dedicated to testing vaccine candidates for the prevention of HIV. The upcoming South Africa trials will test new and improved versions of vaccines which, in a trial conducted in Thailand, were shown to reduce the rate of HIV infection by about 30 percent—the most promising HIV vaccine result to date.

Dr. Julie McElrath, second from left, inside a lab in Fred Hutch's Vaccine and Infectious Disease division.  McElrath is principal investigator of the Hutch's HIV vaccine trials network, the world's largest HIV trials program.
DR. JULIE MCELRATH, SECOND FROM LEFT, INSIDE A LAB IN FRED HUTCH’S VACCINE AND INFECTIOUS DISEASE DIVISION. MCELRATH IS PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR OF THE HUTCH’S HIV VACCINE TRIALS UNIT, PART OF HVTN, THE WORLD’S LARGEST HIV TRIALS PROGRAM. Photo by Matt Hagen

HVTN staff have spent the past two years fanning out across southern Africa, scouting trial sites and laying the foundation for trials that will involve roughly two dozen new sites and several thousand patients. Phase 1 studies are already taking place to make sure the vaccines are safe. The goal is to launch a large Phase 3 trial – which confirms effectiveness and determines any side effects – in 2015.

The lab will analyze blood samples from trial participants to see how their immune systems react to the vaccine and interact with the virus. If the trial confirms the Thai trial's results, researchers may learn which responses future vaccines should aim to produce. That would position scientists to launch smaller, more targeted trials that try to quickly zero in on an effective vaccine.

The exterior of the new Cape Town HVTN immunology laboratory.
THE EXTERIOR OF THE NEW CAPE TOWN HVTN IMMUNOLOGY LABORATORY.

"If we get the right results, we could potentially make the vaccine far more effective in a relatively short period of time," said Dr. Larry Corey, Fred Hutch's president and director and HVTN principal investigator. Corey launched HVTN in 1999.

The project received critical funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and represents a partnership between Fred Hutch and South Africa's research community. The lab will collaborate with local researchers and aim to increase the country's scientific capacity in the fight against HIV, said Dr. Erica Andersen-Nissen, director of the lab.

"That's a really important goal – to partner with African scientists and clinicians to lay a foundation for research that extends far beyond the HVTN," she said. 

The HIV Vaccine Trials Network is supported through a cooperative agreement with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  The renovation of the Cape Town HVTN Immunology Laboratory is made possible through generous support provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

DR. JULIE MCELRATH, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, DIRECTOR VACCINE AND INFECTIOUS DISEASE DIVISION
Photo by Matt Hagen

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