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Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center opens HIV-vaccine lab in South Africa

Cape Town facility is integral in the effort to stop the global spread of AIDS

The Cape Town HVTN Immunology Laboratory in South Africa.

The Cape Town HVTN Immunology Laboratory in South Africa.

Photo by Sean Kliger

SEATTLE – Oct. 22, 2013 – Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center tomorrow will celebrate the grand opening of a state-of-the-art HIV vaccine laboratory in Cape Town, South Africa. The lab will be one of Africa’s most advanced scientific facilities.

The lab is part of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, which is headquartered at Fred Hutch in Seattle and is the world’s largest network dedicated to testing vaccine candidates for the prevention of HIV. The opening of the Cape Town HVTN Immunology Laboratory illustrates how the Hutch is constantly seeding new, international collaborations that bring researchers together to find a vaccine to end HIV.

The lab will analyze results from upcoming trials of innovative new HIV vaccines and will help African scientists advance their own research. The 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 results to date.

“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 HVTN Laboratory Center Director Julie McElrath, M.D., Ph.D., senior vice president and director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutch.

HVTN staff members have spent the past two years fanning out across southern Africa, scouting trial sites and laying the foundation for trials that will involve about 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 – to confirm effectiveness and determine any side effects – in 2015.

Julie McElrath, M.D., Ph.D., is director of the HVTN Laboratory Center, and senior vice president and director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutch.

Julie McElrath, M.D., Ph.D., is director of the HVTN Laboratory Center, and senior vice president and director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutch.

Photo by Matt Hagen

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.

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

The Cape Town HVTN Immunology Laboratory 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 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 beyond the HVTN,” she said.

Editor’s note: Fred Hutch staff writer and veteran journalist Deborah Bach and multimedia specialist Robert Hood are in Cape Town to cover the grand opening of the lab and report this week on related activities. To track their journey, follow them on Twitter (username @HutchinsonCtr, hashtag #HutchHIV), like Fred Hutch on Facebook (www.facebook.com/HutchinsonCenter) and visit www.FredHutch.org/SouthAfrica.

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At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, home to three Nobel laureates, interdisciplinary teams of world-renowned scientists seek new and innovative ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. Fred Hutch’s pioneering work in bone marrow transplantation led to the development of immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of the immune system to treat cancer with minimal side effects. An independent, nonprofit research institute based in Seattle, Fred Hutch houses the nation’s first and largest cancer prevention research program, as well as the clinical coordinating center of the Women’s Health Initiative and the international headquarters of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Private contributions are essential for enabling Fred Hutch scientists to explore novel research opportunities that lead to important medical breakthroughs. For more information visit www.fredhutch.org or follow Fred Hutch on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

CONTACT
Kristen Woodward
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Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.