UMASS MEDICAL SCHOOL RESEARCHERS AWARDED PEDIATRIC HIV VACCINE DEVELOPMENT GRANT

First awards from Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation’s Pediatric HIV Vaccine Research Program

April 23, 2008

WORCESTER, Mass.—The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF), a world leader in the fight against pediatric AIDS, announced that it will award five grants totaling $1 million to researchers to support the development of a pediatric HIV vaccine.

Shan Lu, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS), and colleague Katherine Ruiz De Luzuriaga, MD, professor of pediatrics and director of the division of pediatric immunology, are among the first five recipient teams to receive a Pediatric HIV Vaccine Research Program grant. The UMMS team was chosen from 46 teams that competed for the grants; other awardees include researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital; Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; and the University of Colorado Health Science Center.

The EGPAF Pediatric HIV Vaccine Research Program supports basic and pre-clinical research relevant to pediatric HIV vaccine design and development.  The program was created after a survey of global HIV vaccine projects found that pediatric issues were virtually absent in the research agenda. With a global network of scientists and a long history of supporting pediatric-focused basic research, the Foundation is well positioned to address this gap.

One potentially promising way to reduce the spread of HIV is through a preventive vaccine that will protect all people—including infants—from the virus. Vaccines have reduced many common childhood infections by up to 99 percent in the developed world, and may be the single, most effective public health measure. A vaccine that protects infants against HIV transmission through breast-feeding could set the stage for lifetime immunity. If a vaccine succeeds, millions of children could get life-long protection and be part of the first HIV-free generation.

“Our awardees are remarkably talented scientists, and their projects will provide critical data that may lead to breakthroughs and inform other studies as the scientific community searches for an effective HIV vaccine,” said Pamela Barnes, president and chief executive officer of the EGPAF. “We formed the Pediatric HIV Vaccine Research Program to make children an integral part of vaccine research.  By supporting these promising projects, we are putting a focus on children in vaccine research.”

To launch this program, EGPAF requested applications from researchers across the globe for projects related to development of a pediatric vaccine. The projects selected for support will study regulatory T cells in infants; breast milk antibodies; investigate the safety and efficacy of novel vaccine candidates in animal models; study the impact of feeding from both the breast and the bottle versus breast feeding alone on the susceptibility of infants to HIV infection; and study transmitted viruses with particular focus on the cell surface proteins that allow viral entry.

The UMMS team will characterize viruses that are transmitted from HIV positive mothers to their infants and will use this information to develop vaccines that can be used to interrupt mother-to-child HIV transmission.  This is the first time that HIV vaccine researchers will specifically screen and select protective antigens from mother-to-child transmitted viruses. 

“HIV has a protein coat (also known as the “envelope” protein) that interacts with cell surface proteins to allow viral entry into cells,” said Dr. Luzuriaga.  “Antibodies to envelope proteins have been shown to protect against mother-to-child transmission in animal models. We will therefore focus on characterizing the biological properties of envelope proteins that are transmitted to infants and examine their susceptibility to neutralizing antibodies.” 

Information from these studies will be used to select infant viral envelope sequences for inclusion in a vaccine designed to prevent mother-to-child transmission. “Recent studies conducted at UMMS have demonstrated that a novel immunization approach, in which two different forms of HIV vaccines are delivered as a sequential combination, was able to induce robust immune responses against multiple HIV isolates,” said Dr. Lu.   “The UMMS team will use the same approach to identify virus proteins that may be able to induce antibody responses and block the transmission of HIV from mothers to children.”  

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About the University of Massachusetts Medical School
The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research.  The Medical School attracts more than $174 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. UMMS is the academic partner of UMass Memorial Health Care, the largest health care provider in Central Massachusetts. For more information, visit www.umassmed.edu.

About the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation
The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation is a worldwide leader in the fight against pediatric AIDS. Its innovative research programs, collaborative training initiatives, advocacy efforts, and rapidly expanding international prevention and treatment programs are bringing dramatic changes to the lives of children worldwide. To learn more about the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and its programs, visit www.pedaids.org.

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Contact: Office of Public Affairs, 508-856-2000, UMMSNews@umassmed.edu