$20 Million Boosts AIDS Treatment, Vaccine Research in Rochester

March 12, 2007

The University of Rochester Medical Center will continue to play a leading role in the nation’s effort fighting AIDS, with more than $20 million to be directed to Rochester doctors and researchers who are working on new treatments for the disease and on finding a vaccine to prevent it altogether, Federal officials announced today.

The funding comes from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which has selected the University as one of 60 U.S. and international institutions to be funded for the next seven years as HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials Units.

At the University, the program brings under one umbrella two lines of research that have been underway for about 20 years: the search for a new vaccine, and the testing of new treatments. University researchers are international leaders in both areas, thanks largely to the participation of more than 3,000 Rochester-area residents who have taken part in treatment and vaccine studies. The University is the only institution in the nation to be part of both efforts since their inception by the Federal government.

Treatment options for people infected with the HIV virus have increased dramatically since AIDS was first recognized as a disease 26 years ago. Nearly every one of the more than 20 drugs now available to treat AIDS has been tested in Rochester, which is the site of one of the original 11AIDS treatments units established by the National Institutes of Health in 1986. Currently more than 900 patients with HIV are cared for by doctors at the University’s AIDS clinic at Strong Memorial Hospital.

“The development of a number of effective treatment options for patients with HIV really has been quite spectacular, and there are several new medication on the horizon,” said Richard Reichman, M.D., professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, and chief of the Infectious Diseases Division, who heads the University’s AIDS research and treatment efforts. “I’ve had patients walk in, literally at death’s door, who receive treatment and go on to live relatively normal lives for many years.”

Today, many AIDS patients are able to take one pill a day, a huge difference from a time when patients had to juggle more than 30 pills a day.

But the disease continues to take a dramatic toll, with more than 25 million people worldwide who have died from AIDS, and a lifetime of medications and side effects for other patients. That’s why much of the new research is aimed at finding and testing a vaccine to prevent the disease. So far, dozens of potential vaccines have been tested in people, and a few have been tested in large studies, but no vaccine has yet been successful at preventing the disease.

“It’s absolutely critical to develop a vaccine to effectively control this epidemic,” said Reichman. “The number of people who are becoming infected continues to increase dramatically. Many people are under the mistaken impression that the problem has been solved. That’s just not true.”

Rochester’s HIV vaccine efforts are led by Michael Keefer, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the University’s HIV Vaccine Trials Unit. Keefer also serves as associate director of scientific administration for the international HIV Vaccine Trial Network.

“The vaccine program is unique in the fight against AIDS, as the vast majority of our participants are normal healthy people from everyday walks of life, who do not have HIV, and in fact are not even at risk for acquiring the infection. It is truly a community collaboration and is something the entire community can be proud of,” said Keefer.

So far more than 900 people in the Rochester area have taken part in HIV vaccine studies, making Rochester one of the top cities in the world for participation in the search for a vaccine against HIV. Rochester is one of only two sites worldwide that have been working on a vaccine since the first units were created in 1988. Currently the unit is involved in 14 studies.

Rochester scientists are also leaders in studying the phenomenon of resistance to anti-viral medications in patients. Research on that front is one reason why today’s medications are so much more successful compared to drugs available a decade ago.

The funding announced today by NIAID marks a major reorganization of the nation’s research effort aimed at fighting AIDS. The reorganization marks a major expansion of the international portion of AIDS research funded by NIAID, and it brings together under one umbrella six different AIDS research networks. Rochester is involved in two, the search for a vaccine and the evaluation of new treatments through clinical trials.

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