Among the more than 400 research projects presented were three Atlanta-based researchers who have been developing a new vaccine and implementing human trials.

Dr. Harriet Robinson has been studying HIV and AIDS since the beginning of the outbreak. She has been developing a novel approach she hopes may be developed into the first effective HIV vaccine. In a two-pronged approach, the vaccine uses a DNA vaccine priming approach coupled with weakened pox virus to inject vaccinating HIV-1 proteins to spark an immune response that raises resistance and helps the body fight the disease.

A variation of Robinson’s vaccine is currently in Phase II human trials, and at the conference Robinson discussed a new study that examined using an adjuvant, a substance that boosts immune response to a vaccine.

In her new study a group of primates were “challenged” with a strain of HIV once a week for 12 weeks, with a dose of HIV far more potent than what humans face.

“We have 70 percent protection in our adjuvanted group, 20 percent protection in our non-adjuvanted group and no protection in our control group,” Robinson said.
The vaccine lowered the viral loads in infected primates.

“We saw the most level of virus in our control group, an intermediate level in our un-adjuvanted group, and the lowest in our adjuvanted group,” she said. “This certainly is the trend that we want to see and it is consistent with our previous studies.”

Robinson said her group believed the vaccine provided “sterilizing protection” in the primates and that those results could transfer to humans.

“The hope is that this will indeed translate into the human situation because we’re going into a much larger dose than a typical human is exposed to,” Robinson said.

Help for those already HIV-positive

Robinson started her research at Emory University before moving to a private firm to help develop her research into a marketable vaccine. Emory continues to support her work and one of her colleagues, Dr. Rama Amara, is developing a variant of a vaccine that may have therapeutic effects for those already HIV positive.

“You use antibodies that can bind the antibodies that can bind the virus very tightly. So far the concept is that you need a neutralizing anti-body that is specific in the sense that it will bind to only a specific region on the virus,” Amara explained his findings to Georgia Voice.  “It is very difficult to generate antibodies [that attach to a specific area of HIV], but what we are showing is that you can have antibodies that can bind everywhere, but tightly.”

It is his hope that by developing a broad-based anti-body they raise immune response and help those with HIV control their viral load with less medication.

“If you have this activity working for you than it is more likely that you get protection against multiple viruses,” Amara said.

While still in the early stages Amara said he is very encouraged by the initial studies and look forward to moving his research forward.

If his research reaches the human stage it will have to pass through the clinical trial network that includes Emory’s Hope Clinic. Dr. Paula Frew is an HIV investigator with the Emory Hope Clinic and presented a study of a recent Hope trial and discussed Emory’s approach to connecting with the community.

“It’s really a team process where we have our scientists working with the community side-by-side informing the community on what is happening just as much as our clinical trials [team members] are,” Frew said.

Community involvement

Frew argued that without strong community involvement it will be difficult for researchers to find qualified volunteers for studies like the ongoing HVTN 505 study.

“In the wake of HVTN 505 we clearly see the need for greater community involvement,” Frew said.

HVTN is a Phase II trial that is examining the effect of combining two vaccines. It got off to a slow start in enrolling the 1,350 circumcised men who have sex with men needed as study subjecs. Frew said the Hope Clinic has a higher enrollment among minorities because of the way it has involved itself in the community.

Emory has supported community organizations like AID Atlanta, SisterLove and the now defunct AIDS Survival Project.

Frew said that Emory is trying to brand itself and displayed an ad that showcased gay activists Linda Ellis of the Atlanta Lesbian Health Initiative, Michael Baker of Positive Impact, and Philip Rafshoon, the owner of Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse. She urged the researchers present to do more.

“We know that often times community outreach is started in the later stages,” she said. “And that really is unfortunate because we really need everyone from our basic scientists on up to really be engaged in the process of building acceptance in the community for the work that we are doing.”

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