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11 December 2000
New HIV Vaccine Study
by George Atkinson

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are testing a new HIV vaccine to determine if it is safe and whether it induces an immune response in the body. The multi-center study is being conducted here by the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at UAB (AVRC@UAB).

The vaccine, developed by Merck Inc., is the second HIV vaccine studied at UAB that uses naked DNA. "Other vaccines being tested are enveloped DNA, carried inside a harmless virus, like canary pox, or they are proteins," says Dr. Mark Mulligan, director of AVRC@UAB. "With DNA vaccines, the DNA enters the cells and signals them to produce proteins, which in turn induce the production of virus-fighting T-cells."

A new technology has allowed researchers to remove the harmless virus from around the DNA and develop a "straight" DNA vaccine. "It's an interesting new concept in vaccine development and may represent the future of vaccine research and development," says Mulligan. "The gene used in the vaccine has been modified slightly to produce more proteins in humans."

This is a small-scale first-phase study. "There is absolutely no way for volunteers to get HIV from the vaccine," says Mulligan. "We are recruiting 12 volunteers, men and women, age 19 to 55, to participate at UAB.

Volunteers should be healthy, HIV-negative and at low-risk for contracting HIV."

Following an initial screening, eligible volunteers enrolled in the 18-month study will receive four injections of the vaccine over a six-month period. Volunteers will receive a small financial compensation for their participation to help cover time and travel expenses.

"Despite the excellent progress made in the development of therapies to treat people infected with HIV, most experts agree that the only way to gain control of the worldwide epidemic is with a vaccine," says Mulligan. "Last year approximately six million people were infected with the virus, and for many, especially those in the developing world, therapies are not available."

The new DNA vaccine study is part of a larger HIV vaccine research program at the AVRC@UAB. "Vaccines work by preventing infection or disease," says Mulligan. "The idea is to create memory in the body so that in the future, if the virus invades, the immune system will recognize it as virus and mount an immediate, aggressive response. That is what we are aiming for -- an effective HIV vaccine that will protect people from disease caused by the virus."




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