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AIDS Vaccine Expert To Deliver Hill Lecture, May 3
By Jennifer Wenger
Will the world ever have an AIDS vaccine? This question will be the focus of discussion when esteemed AIDS researcher Dr. Emilio A. Emini, newly named senior vice president and chief of vaccine development for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), delivers NIAID's James C. Hill Memorial Lecture. The lecture, titled "The Development of an HIV-1 Vaccine: The Need, the Hope, the Struggle and the Unknown," will take place Monday, May 3, at 2 p.m. in Lipsett Amphitheater, Bldg. 10. IAVI is a global nonprofit organization whose principal mission is to find a vaccine to prevent HIV/AIDS.
While remarkable advances have been made in the past decade toward our understanding of HIV/AIDS, says Emini, its relentless spread, particularly within certain communities and developing world countries, makes it clear that only a preventive vaccine will help bring the epidemic to an end.
Still, despite the research that has been conducted to date, an effective vaccine remains beyond reach.
One of the biggest hurdles, Emini says, is how the virus has evolved to interact with the immune system.
"HIV establishes a symbiotic relationship with the immune system, striking a balance between infecting immune system cells and staying one step ahead of the immune response," he explained. "So our goal is to develop a better understanding of that balance, which is established very early in the infection, and alter it to favor the immune system."
Emini's experience with vaccines began some 20 years ago, at the start of his long and distinguished career at Merck Research Laboratories in West Point, Pa. At that time, he began helping to develop new vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis A and B and exploring the feasibility of a vaccine for the Epstein-Barr virus, a member of the herpes family. In 1986 5 years after HIV/AIDS was first recognized in the United States he turned his full-time attention to its study.
"That year, it was becoming clear how truly serious this issue was," he said, "and the company made a decision that it wanted to get involved. Here was an opportunity to work on a brand new virus with an unknown pathogenesis, and I knew that's where I needed to spend my time."
Emini's research has helped transform AIDS from a pernicious disease in which there was little hope for survival to a manageable chronic illness. As founding executive director of Merck's department of antiviral research, he spearheaded programs that resulted in the discovery of two antiretroviral drugs indinavir, a protease inhibitor that helps prevent the virus from becoming infectious, and efavirenz, a reverse transcriptase inhibitor that prevents the virus from multiplying. His quest for a more effective long-term treatment for HIV led to the design of the first potent triple-drug regimens used in highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), a widely hailed treatment method by which individuals consume a combined anti-HIV drug "cocktail" to help suppress the virus.
After being named vice president of Merck's vaccine and biologics research in 1997, Emini oversaw Merck's entire research portfolio for vaccines against AIDS and other infectious diseases, including human papillomavirus, rotavirus and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Under his leadership, five AIDS vaccine candidates advanced from animal studies to human clinical trials. His desire to spend 100 percent of his time working on HIV vaccines prompted him to leave his position at Merck and join IAVI.
"This is a very interesting time," he said. "Ten years ago, we were dead in the water regarding an HIV vaccine, and it was unclear in which direction to go." Now, he says, the field is advancing rapidly, thanks in large part to a recent appreciation for, understanding of and ability to study the cellular immune system, a critical component in the balance between the immune system and the virus. "It's a period of time where no one is short of ideas," he said.
Emini has served as an adviser to NIH's Office of AIDS Research and NIAID's acquired immunodeficiency syndrome research review committee. In 2002, he was named one of Scientific American's 50 technology leaders for his efforts to develop a vaccine for AIDS. In 2003, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology for his contributions to the study of HIV/AIDS. He holds a Ph.D. in virology from Cornell University's Graduate School of Medical Sciences.
The NIAID-sponsored lecture is dedicated to the memory of Dr. James C. Hill who, as NIAID deputy director, helped build the institute's HIV/AIDS research program during the earliest years of the epidemic.
A reception outside of Lipsett Amphitheater will be held immediately following the lecture.
Note: May 18 is HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, a day to educate Americans about the need for vaccines to prevent HIV. To learn more about HIV Vaccine Awareness Day or HIV vaccine research, visit www.aidsinfo.nih.gov.
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