HIV virus
The deadily and rapidly evolving HIV virus. Image courtesy Scripps Research

The Scripps Consortium for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Development, an international collaboration led by Scripps Research, has received $129 million from the National Institutes of Health for clinical trials of new vaccines.

The seven-year award announced Wednesday will cover the manufacture of new vaccines that can be used in early-stage human clinical testing.

The candidate vaccines are designed to be administered in multiple stages to induce immune system proteins called “broadly neutralizing antibodies.” In animal studies, these vaccines have been shown to provide long-lasting protection against exposure to multiple HIV strains.

The award will fund the work of 26 investigators: eight at Scripps Research in La Jolla, and 18 at more than a dozen other scientific organizations, including four foreign sites.

“Previous NIH support for this international collaboration allowed us to lay the scientific foundation for developing an unprecedented and highly promising approach to HIV vaccination,” said Dennis Burton, director of the Scripps consortium. “This new award provides critical funding to refine this approach and bring it into human clinical testing.”

Rep. Mike Levin, whose congressional district encompasses Scripps Research, said he is “thrilled to see this vital federal funding coming to our region for critically important health research.”

Today daily medication called antiretroviral therapy can suppress HIV to undetectable levels in the blood and prevent sexual transmission of the virus. In addition, HIV acquisition can be prevented through pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. Despite these forms of HIV prevention, there is a new case approximately every 15 seconds, and nearly 37 million people are living with the virus.

The virus presents a daunting scientific challenge because its slippery surface provides few targets for the immune system and it evolves rapidly. Many different strains of HIV circulate among people living with the virus at any given time. Just one person may carry hundreds of thousands of variants of the virus.

Burton and his colleagues opened a new front in HIV vaccine design in 2009 when they discovered two potent antibodies in the blood cells of a woman living with HIV that were capable of neutralizing 70 percent of HIV strains representative of the global epidemic.

To pursue this and other novel concepts in HIV vaccine research, the Scripps Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology and Immunogen Discovery was formed in 2012 with an initial $77 million award.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.