Dramatic advances in the fight against HIV/AIDS could produce a vaccine in the next 10 to 20 years, saving 1.5 million lives worldwide annually, according to USF’s Juliet Spencer.
One discovery by researchers at Oregon Health and Science University led to the development of the first vaccine capable of preventing and, in some cases, eliminating SIV (the monkey variant of HIV) in infected rhesus monkeys. The study was published in the September issue of Nature journal and made headlines around the world.
Spencer was especially excited by the breakthrough because it was made possible by Cytomegalovirus (CMV), a member of the herpes family she has studied for more than 15 years.
Juliet Spencer, associate professor, biology: Researches herpes viruses and their unique ability to establish latent, lifelong infections by tricking the human immune system into not attacking them. Her current work, funded by the National Institutes of Health, focuses on one member of the herpes family, Cytomegalovirus (CMV)—research that may open doors to treating HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
Researchers used a modified form of CMV to transport an SIV vaccine into the monkeys and then exposed them to an aggressive strain of SIV. The vaccine prevented a substantial number of the monkeys from ever contracting SIV. In other cases, it was able to fight off developing SIV and eliminate it. It’s an approach scientists hope can be adapted for humans infected with HIV.
The discovery could be the “Goldilocks” vaccine researchers have been looking for. Earlier vaccines were either too weak and had no effect on the virus, or too strong and infected the subject. “For 25 years, researchers have tried to develop a vaccine that is neither too cold nor too hot but just right,” Spencer says. “This shows it can be done.”
“Scientifically, it’s enthralling,” she says. “It’s further evidence that a better understanding of human CMV could have broad health implications.”
It could also lead to more interest and research funding in the field, Spencer says.
Searching For Big Answers in Little Things
USF research just took a quantum leap with the recent opening of the half-million-dollar Fletcher Jones Microscopy Lab. It features three latest-generation microscopes that each work in a different way:
- Scanning confocal microscope: Uses a laser to examine cells at various depths, and renders images in 3D
- Scanning electron microscope: Uses electrons instead of light to form an image. It has many advantages over traditional microscopes, including a larger depth of field, higher resolution, and more control over the degree of magnification
- Flow cytometer: Uses a laser to examine the quantity, size, and shape of microscopic particles like cells and chromosomes by suspending them in a stream of fluid and detecting them electronically
“This equipment is 20 years ahead of what we were working with before. By having the chance to work with these new instruments, our students will be able to walk into research labs like those at Genentech, UCSF Medical Center, or the EPA and feel confident they know what they’re doing,” says Juliet Spencer, associate professor of biology. She won a grant to build the lab from the Fletcher Jones Foundation, which supports private education at California universities.