Kill a Killer
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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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.