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Dennis Burton

A Pioneer in HIV Vaccine Research

Dennis Burton is widely considered a leader in the HIV vaccine field and one of the world's primary masters in antibodies. Burton is the director of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative Neutralizing Antibody Consortium to speed the discovery of a vaccine to prevent AIDS worldwide, an effort which includes a number of research dignitaries.

His most recent finding, which appeared in Nature, could have profound implications for AIDS vaccine design. It delineates a component of an HIV surface protein, that unlike much of the constantly mutating virus, is stable and appears vulnerable to attack from a specific antibody, known as b12, that can broadly neutralize HIV.

"I really think he's doing great work and people should stand up and pay attention," says Ronald Desrosiers, an HIV vaccine researcher at Harvard Medical School. "I don't give compliments easily, but I've been saying a lot of good things about Dennis lately." Burton says he hopes to contribute in some significant way to finding an effective AIDS vaccine. He and others have characterized a few antibodies that can broadly neutralize HIV.

Yet, two days every week, you'll find Burton adorned in soccer apparel in his lab. The immunologist has played soccer most of his life. Off the field, Burton is very easy to get along with and has a laid back attitude. Burton has fostered a spirit of teamwork and because of his bright, acceptable attitude, many of his current lab members have either always worked with him, or have left and returned after postdoctoral appointments elsewhere. Since he established his own lab at Scripps Research in 1991, his research team has skyrocketed from two people to eighteen.

A strong, analytical scientist like Burton is particularly valuable in the HIV field, says Richard Lerner, former president of Scripps Research. "Burton takes a very calm scientific approach to the problem."

Burton received his Ph.D. from the University of Lund in Sweden. He began his career at the University of Sheffield in the UK. In 1989, he arrived at Scripps Research to work in Dr. Lerner's lab. At the time, Burton and several others in the Lerner lab were trying to make recombinant antibodies using a new technology.

During this time, Burton made his largest breakthrough and a much-praised paper in Science. Even today, Burton still describes the finding with excitement and feeling. One morning that October, he says, he came in and saw a series of spots on radioactive plates. "What that meant is we'd made recombinant antibodies outside of animals and here they were for the first time," Burton says. That afternoon, the lab rejoiced with champagne and Burton wrote the date on the bottle. He still keeps the bottle in his kitchen cupboard.

Burton values a collaboration above all else. "In the [HIV] vaccine field, there is a duty of researchers to help one another get to [a common] goal - I think most people feel that. You can do more working together than in isolation."

In fact, the biggest attraction of Scripps Research to Burton is that he can work with multiple individuals who are world leaders in virology, immunology, chemistry and structural biology. "It's possible to get advice and collaborate with people who are amazingly gifted and dedicated."

When asked what drives him day to day, Burton said, "Like most scientists, I'm driven by the curiosity and satisfaction of being able to explain how nature works and by the excitement of seeing data that helps to put the puzzle together. Plus, I find myself increasingly driven by the goal of developing an AIDS vaccine." Burton and his colleague at Scripps, Ian Wilson, led the research that solved 4E10, which was named Molecule of the Year 2005 by the International Society of Molecular and Cell Biology Protocols and Researches "for being the broadest acting neutralizing antibody against HIV."

In addition to his work on HIV, Burton has worked on respiratory syncytial virus, Ebola virus, and prion infections, such as mad cow disease.

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“I'm driven by the curiosity and satisfaction of being able to explain how nature works and by the excitement of seeing data that helps to put the puzzle together,” says Professor Dennis Burton. “Plus, I find myself increasingly driven by the goal of developing an AIDS vaccine."