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Seattle scientists lead the way on HIV vaccine research

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Seattle scientists leading the way on HIV vaccine research (KOMO News){ }

SEATTLE--Research underway in Seattle right now could lead to a vaccine for HIV. It could mean we're on the brink of a major advancement in ending the AIDS epidemic.

At the Gay City Wellness Clinic, Luis Viquez does his part to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. He educates patients about a medication called PrEP - that stops HIV from taking hold. It works well, but only if people take it as prescribed.

"That's why an HIV vaccine, we need that. So that we don't have to worry about folks having to take pills everyday," Visquez said. "We're making so much headway with education and intervention. Ultimately, the HIV vaccine will be the pinnacle."

Some of the most promising advances are happening just a few miles away at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where the HIV Vaccine Trials Network is headquartered.

They're trying to clear a challenging hurdle. HIV can branch into so many different strains, no single approach has stopped them all. Now, scientists are developing a vaccine that could be more effective because of how it works.

"It's a little bit like a very specialized key for a really unique lock," said Dr. Kristen Cohen, who is a senior staff scientist. "The goal is it will turn the lock for a specialized immune response that has the ability to block HIV infection."

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative announced a new clinical trial this week. CEO Dr. Mark Feinberg said in a statement, “The world urgently needs new ways to prevent HIV infection, and chief among these is a vaccine."

"It really targets communities that are under-served, so communities least equipped to deal with HIV are the ones that are struggling with HIV prevalence," Cohen said.

George Washington University in Washington, D.C. is the second location for the trial. The vaccine candidate was developed in the laboratory of Dr. William Schief at Scripps Research, according to IAVI.

“This is a big moment, not just for HIV vaccines, but for vaccine science as a whole,” said Dr. Dennis Burton, chair of the Scripps Research Department of Immunology and Microbiology. “This trial is going to tell us how much control we can have over the immune responses induced by a targeted vaccine candidate. If this type of vaccine engineering is successful, it can be applied more broadly, bringing about a new day in vaccinology. If we can really drive immune responses in predictable ways, we can make better, more effective vaccines, not just for HIV but for other viruses, too.”

Fred Hutch and George Washington University will recruit 24 healthy adults each, to test the vaccine, possibly helping people around the world.

"Our work is so important, with over 36 million people living with HIV in this world, over 50 percent are women and marginalized communities, so a vaccine is our greatest hope to end the epidemic," said Ro Yoon, Community Engagement Manager for the HIV Vaccine Trials Network.

Viquez has buried friends who died of AIDS. But he could see a vaccine in his lifetime.

"Very blessed to be able to compare both and to see both," he said. "We came from desperate times to hopeful times."

And he says that couldn't happen without the marriage of great minds in science and giving hearts in the community, working together.

The vaccine candidate was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, USAID, and Scripps Research.

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