Madison, Wis. – Trying to find a vaccine for AIDS is tricky enough, but when your scientists are scattered in five different places on a sprawling university campus, it’s downright daunting.
So when the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s new AIDS Vaccine Research Laboratory opened on Sept. 16, the prospects for eventual success seemed all the more possible. Lab scientists there are focusing on a technique that may hold greater promise to prevent AIDS than one that failed in clinical trials elsewhere two years ago.
The lab’s major emphasis is on vaccine development, but it also has an interest in transmission and pathogenesis.
The experiments are done with rhesus macaque monkeys under the auspices of the UW National Primate Research Center.
Finding an AIDS vaccine is proving to be a much harder nut to crack than other diseases caused by viruses, said Nancy Wilson, associate scientist and lab manager. Vaccines for SARS and West Nile virus, two recent threats, have already been discovered. But the HIV virus mutates so quickly that any initial solution is quickly undercut by the virus itself, she said.
Five years ago, researchers in the laboratory of David Watkins, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, announced they’d discovered an important way that the HIV virus evades the body’s immune system, the so-called “killer T cells.” Now they want to mimic those responses in an AIDS vaccine. The discovery was published in the September 2000 issue of the scientific journal Nature.
The T cell method not only holds promise for AIDS, but for many other diseases as well, such as cancer, Wilson said. Other scientists elsewhere are experimenting with it, she added. “When they invented Tang for the astronauts, it didn’t just stay with them,” she said.
The UW scientists have an ongoing collaboration with Merck Pharmaceuticals for some of the basic research, she said. That’s important, because corporations have greater reach and understanding of practical issues than do pure academic researchers. “Something might be perfect in a controlled situation but it doesn’t do anything for the world if it doesn’t work in Africa,” she said.
The 20,000-square foot lab opened in remodeled quarters in the University Research Park on Madison’s west side. It is funded by the National Institutes of Health to the tune of about $4 million a year, Wilson said. Between 40 and 45 scientists and graduate students work in the lab in the areas of molecular biology, cell biology and protein biochemistry, among others. “Now we’re all together, it makes it easier to collaborate,” she said.