AIDS vaccine is always in pharmacy professor’s sights

When the global pharmaceutical research company Bristol-Myers Squibb moved its Seattle research operation to the East Coast in 1997, Dr. Shiu-Lok Hu left his job there to join the departments of microbiology and pharmaceutics at the UW. But he was not a newcomer to the University; since the late 1980s, he had a small lab at the UW and a part-time appointment conducting research on early concepts of an HIV/AIDS vaccine.

Hu, the Gibaldi Endowed Professor of Pharmaceutics at the UW School of Pharmacy, was part of a team at a small biotech firm called Oncogen that pioneered bringing the prime-boost immunization method—an early AIDS vaccine candidate—to clinical trial in 1988. Although this discovery laid the foundation for much of his work at the UW, his focus now is less on bringing a product to market and more on basic research coupled with pre-clinical, proof-of-concept studies. “HIV was discovered 30 years ago and still has a major global impact on public health,” says Hu. “Needless to say, we have to find a way to prevent and control infection, and to treat people who are already infected.”

Now, thanks to a four-year $6.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Hu is part of The Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery (CAVD), an international network of scientists dedicated to designing and advancing promising new HIV vaccine candidates to clinical trials.

“You really need people from many different disciplines working together to generate new insights that may lead to new ways of approaching a vaccine. This cannot happen without a university like the UW,” notes Hu.

Hu’s work relies on a multidisciplinary team of structural biologists, virologists, immunologists and other scientists who can answer some fundamental questions, including how to identify conserved features on the surface of the HIV virus that may serve as targets for vaccine design. Defining these features allows Hu’s team to work toward a vaccine that can produce immune responses effective against multiple variants of HIV. The concept of natural infection by HIV, capable of generating protective immunity, is not proven as it has been for other infectious diseases (e.g., polio, measles, etc.) for which there are effective vaccines.

“In Seattle, we’re lucky that, beyond the UW, we also have the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle BioMed and other world-class scientific research institutes,” says Hu. “It’s a convergence of global health research here—and the UW is at the center of it.”