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Thayer prof. works on HIV vaccine

Jan 31, 2012   |   by Tom Owen   |   The Dartmouth

A research consortium led by engineering professor Margaret Ackerman has received an $8 million-grant from Partners Health Care, a non-profit health care provider in Massachusetts, to fund the development of a new type of HIV vaccine, according to Ackerman.

The consortium, led by Ackerman and Galit Alter, a professor at Harvard Medical School, includes researchers with a wide variety of specialties from both national and international institutions, Ackerman said. Although researchers have been trying to develop HIV vaccines for three decades, Ackerman’s initiative differs from its predecessors by shifting the focus from the adaptive immune system to the innate immune system, she said. Typically, when the body is infected with a virus, the immune system responds by producing neutralizing antibodies, which block structurally important parts of the pathogen from binding with the body’s cells. This system has been the primary focus of the vast majority of HIV vaccine research efforts, and investigators have for years sought to develop a drug that would induce this response in order to prevent infection. However, one of the factors that contributes to the difficulty of developing an HIV vaccine is the disease’s rapid rate of mutation, according to Ackerman. Because the disease constantly mutates into different strains, an effective vaccine would require very “broad coverage,” which researchers have not been able to produce by focusing on the adaptive immune system.

“There is more viral diversity in a single person infected with HIV than in all of the people in the world infected with the flu,” Ackerman said.

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