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Fall 2000 To Kill a Killer
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Ferbas' quest for a dead-HIV vaccine began when Irvin Chen, director of the UCLA AIDS Institute, approached her about a cellularresponse test she'd developed with her husband, John, an immunologist. Ferbas, Chen's postdoctoral fellow at the time, jumped at the chance to work with him on the project. J.F. Hsu, a UCLA scientist with vast experience designing and testing veterinary vaccines, completed the team.

Charting a new direction, Chen, Ferbas and Hsu crafted their vaccine from a whole AIDS virus that they literally pasteurized like milk, with heat, until it died. Their bold strategy hinged on hurdling two tricky obstacles. First, they had to apply enough heat to kill the virus without destroying its outer armor, or viral envelope - something earlier studies had never managed. Second, they needed to expose hidden regions of the envelope that summon the body to make antibodies to attack HIV.

"It's like adding hot water to a package of dry Top Ramen noodles," Chen explains. "The heat softens and uncoils the virus' envelope, exposing pieces of it we can't ordinarily see."

When the dead virus was examined, Ferbas and Chen discovered they'd cracked both quandaries. "We were so excited," Ferbas recalls. "Irvin is known for safeguarding his time, but our meetings never ran less than two- and-a-half hours. We were kind of giddy."

Her initial excitement doubled when the experimental vaccine also triggered a cellular immune reaction to HIV - offering promise for restoring the immune systems of people already infected with the disease.

Chen originally intended to develop a preventive vaccine. But Ferbas unknowingly set the wheels in motion for a therapeutic vaccine when she presented her first set of data at the AIDS Institute's annual symposium in 1997. After hearing Ferbas' report, UCLA physician Dr. Judith Currier offered her help on a clinical trial to explore the vaccine's benefit for people who are living with HIV.

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