Vol 9. Issue 28 / September 28, 2009

Scripps Research and IAVI Host Symposium to Launch Research Center

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and The Scripps Research Institute have officially launched a new research center, the IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Center at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Scientists at the Neutralizing Antibody Center will focus on designing AIDS vaccines that elicit antibodies that work against a sufficient number of HIV types to protect from infection with the virus. An international scientific symposium September 24 celebrated the opening.

The concept of the Neutralizing Antibody Center is to bring together a critical mass of structural biologists, virologists, chemists, immunologists and computational biologists to work side-by-side to tease out how to generate broad protection from HIV infection, and to connect those scientists to a network of research institutions in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States.

"Every day, another 7,500 individuals become newly infected with HIV," said Seth Berkley, president and CEO of IAVI. "That is unacceptably high. We are hopeful that this partnership will bring us closer to developing a vaccine that will help end the AIDS pandemic."

"The center's team has already made great progress with the identification of the two new neutralizing antibodies," said Scripps Research President Richard A. Lerner. "This discovery lays the foundation for much work to come. And with a goal as complex as an HIV vaccine, it can only be accomplished through collaboration."

The Neutralizing Antibody Center, which is led by Scripps Research Professor Dennis Burton, represents the latest expansion of the Neutralizing Antibody Consortium (NAC), created by IAVI seven years ago to address a neglected area of AIDS vaccine research and development. Its purpose was to focus attention on the potential of neutralizing antibodies at a time when AIDS vaccine candidates in preclinical and clinical testing were devised almost exclusively to elicit cell-mediated immune responses. Most existing vaccines against other diseases are believed to depend critically on eliciting neutralizing antibodies.

Building on New Discoveries

The official launch of the new center comes in the wake of new discoveries in this arena published in Science earlier this month by researchers at IAVI, Scripps Research, and other institutions. The scientists discovered two broadly neutralizing antibodies to HIV that reveal a previously unknown site on the virus that could prove to be a good target for vaccine design. (See News&Views article "New Antibodies Found to Cripple HIV.") The two newly discovered neutralizing antibodies to HIV are the most potent to be identified while also maintaining strong breadth of neutralization. They are the first to have been discovered in more than a decade and the first to have come from donors in developing countries, where the majority of new HIV infections occur.

To advance this finding, researchers are now working to develop immunogens, the active ingredient in vaccines, based on this region of HIV, in the hope of prompting the immune system to produce powerful antibodies that would protect from HIV infection.

"These new antibodies and the site they target on HIV open new avenues to exploit for HIV vaccine design," said Burton. "We expect to identify additional antibodies and novel targets on HIV in the near future, so we are gearing up for a large-scale immunogen design effort. The aim is to design vaccine candidates that prompt the immune system to produce similar neutralizing antibodies. This new center is designed to optimize the chances of succeeding at that."

The Neutralizing Antibody Center houses a powerful, high-speed robot that researchers are using to determine the complex molecular structure of the new antibodies and how they bind to their target on HIV.

The center and the broader Neutralizing Antibody Consortium will also collaborate closely with the rest of IAVI's research program. For example, IAVI's AIDS Vaccine Design and Development Laboratory in New York will rapidly translate leading concepts identified by NAC scientists into clinical candidates for human testing.

"The center will bring together under one roof scientists from multiple disciplines to focus on the design of immunogens aimed at blocking infection with HIV, and it will collaborate extensively with academic, government and industry scientists from across the globe," said Wayne Koff, senior vice president of research and development at IAVI. "HIV is such a difficult foe that it's hard to imagine a single group working alone to create a vaccine to defeat it. By putting a lot of heads together, and bringing in fresh thinking, we hope to greatly improve the odds of success."

Meeting of the Minds

In this spirit of collaboration, a symposium of distinguished scientists celebrated the opening of the new center. The gathering on Scripps Research's California campus gave more than 100 leading researchers the opportunity to discuss recent scientific advances in the quest to develop an AIDS vaccine.

Facilitating sessions at the conference were:

  • Argyrios Theofilopoulos, professor and chair of the Scripps Research Department of Immunology and Microbial Science, who chaired the opening session, "Overview of the Problem"

  • Douglas Richman, professor of pathology and medicine at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, director of the UCSD AIDS Research Institute, and director of the Research Center for AIDS and HIV Infection at the Veterans Administration San Diego Healthcare System, who chaired the session "Structure-Assisted Vaccine Discovery"

  • Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who chaired the session titled "Immunogen Design"

  • Rick King, vice president of vaccine discovery at IAVI, who chaired the "Future Directions" session.

Other speakers included: Rafi Ahmed of Emory School of Medicine, Barton Haynes of Duke University, Burton, Joseph Sodroski of Harvard School of Public Health, Ian Wilson of Scripps Research, Richard Wyatt of NIH Research Center, William Schief of the University of Washington, Benjamin Davis of Oxford University, Jose Esparza of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Philip Johnson of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Christos Petropoulos of Monogram Biosciences, and Koff.

Current members of the Neutralizing Antibody Consortium include: IAVI, The Scripps Research Institute, Academia Sinica, Cornell University, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the Karolinska Institute, Harvard Medical School, the Indian Institute of Science, Oxford University, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Bellinzona, Switzerland, the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Delhi, India, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin, The Veteran's Affairs Medical Research Center, and the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH.

Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu


Dennis Burton, Scripps Research professor and director of the new IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Center, talks to the media about the how the center will work toward the creation of an AIDS vaccine. (Photo by Kevin Fung.)