New Approach to HIV Vaccine Research Taps Rochester Expertise

June 27, 2008

A new national effort to create a vaccine against HIV will include work by a University of Rochester Medical Center rheumatologist who is an expert on a portion of the immune system that has sometimes gotten short shrift in the fight against HIV.

Ignacio Sanz, M.D., professor of Medicine, Microbiology & Immunology, and chief of the Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology, has received $420,000 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to explore how cells known as B cells might be used to help create a vaccine against HIV. Currently, despite more than two decades of painstaking research, there is no vaccine against the virus, which infects on average nearly 7,000 people worldwide every single day, according to the United Nations.

Sanz is an expert on B cells, a key component of our immune system. His research has helped doctors learn more about the role of these cells in diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, leading to new research aimed at creating new ways to treat patients with these conditions. The cells are best known for making antibodies that tag invaders like bacteria and viruses. Once an invader is marked for destruction by an antibody, other immune cells such as macrophages and killer T cells gobble up or otherwise destroy the germs.

Many efforts to create a vaccine against HIV have focused on boosting T cells, but this year NIAID started a new program to boost research designed to help bring B cells more into the fight against HIV. The group led by Sanz is one of 10 research teams nationwide that NIAID is enlisting in the new focus on B cells.

Scientists will focus on special cells known as “broadly neutralizing antibodies” that the body needs to keep up with and recognize HIV as it continually mutates in the body. Some people produce such antibodies readily, helping them thrive and fight off the virus naturally for years or even decades. Sanz’s team will take a close look at the antibodies in healthy people as well as in people with lupus and HIV. His team will try to identify the B cells that churn out these distinctive antibodies, isolate them, and explore ways to incorporate them into future vaccines.

“Are there particular types of B cells that specialize in making the particular antibodies needed to target the HIV virus? And if so, can we develop a way to put those to work to protect patients at risk or help those who are already infected?” asks Sanz. He is leading the Medical Center’s focus on research and clinical care in the area of immunology and infectious disease, part of the new strategic plan.

The Medical Center is well known for its expertise in HIV research and treatment. Last year the Medical Center was named home to a Federal HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials Unit. The University is the only institution in the nation to be part of the nation’s two main HIV and AIDS research efforts, the search for a new vaccine and the testing of new treatments, since their inception by the Federal government more than 20 years ago. Earlier this month the National Institutes of Health awarded a team of more than 50 researchers at the Medical Center $3.2 million to establish an AIDS research network to bolster HIV research at the University

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