Dedicated lab for HIV vaccine design

Published in The Hindu on March 3, 2011

After conducting a couple of AIDS vaccine trials in India, the New York based International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) is shifting its focus to research that will help in finding more efficacious vaccines.

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) along with IAVI will soon establish and operate a laboratory in Gurgaon, near New Delhi, to meet one of the biggest challenges of designing and developing an efficacious AIDS vaccine — elicitation of antibodies that are capable of neutralising a broad spectrum of HIV variants found in humans.

If the AIDS vaccine trials conducted at the National AIDS Research Institute (NARI), Pune, and the Tuberculosis Research Centre (TRC), Chennai, equipped the researchers and the institutions to take up clinical trials of international standards, the new laboratory may similarly equip our scientists to conduct HIV research and development on par with any developed country.

Location of the lab

According to Dr. Rajat Goyal, Country Director of IAVI, India, the laboratory will come up on the campus of the Translational Health Sciences and Technology Institute (THSTI), an autonomous institute of DBT. The investment over the next five years is about Rs.51 crores, with investments coming from both IAVI and India. IAVI will be investing about Rs.19 crores and the balance by India.

Apart from the director, the laboratory will have three principal investigators, 15 key scientists and several support staff.

Neutralising antibodies

Neutralising antibodies are those that are capable of neutralising the virus causing HIV at the very point of its entry into the cells. An effective HIV vaccine containing neutralising antibodies can thus prevent cells from getting infected by the virus.

Though vaccines were initially designed to kill the cells that are already infected by the virus, researchers are now focussing on finding vaccines that can both neutralise the virus before it infects the cells as well as kill those cells that have been infected.

Starting of the laboratory gains importance as it comes close on the heels of IAVI and few other institutions around the world identifying and isolating 14 broadly neutralising antibodies.

Identifying such antibodies became possible by studying adults in 12 countries who have been infected by the virus for at least three years but have not progressed to a diseased state (becoming AIDS patients) even in the absence of any antiretroviral therapy (ART).

These people apparently have the much sought after broadly neutralising antibodies.

Having identified the antibodies in these people, many organisations are in hot pursuit to find immunogens (substances like proteins that provoke immune response in humans) that will ultimately be used in the vaccines.

Different approach

“Different groups have different approaches to finding the immunogens. We have come up with a different approach. Most research laboratories have a low throughput screening process. Ours will be a high-throughput screening of immunogens,” said Dr. Sudhanshu Vrati, Dean, Translational Health Science and Technology Institute and Senior Scientist at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi.

According to Dr. Vrati, the new laboratory will be a dedicated facility to find the best immunogen at a faster pace.

“The new laboratory will be responsible for isolation, selection and prioritisation of the immunogens,” said Dr. Goyal. Identifying the antibodies is the first step. What follows is the designing of the immunogens and finally the isolation and selection of the immunogens. Vaccines containing the immunogens will be ready for pre-clinical evaluation once the process of isolation, selection and prioritisation of the imunogens is completed.

The crucial stage

While the first part — identification of the antibodies — has been completed, the designing of the immunogens is being done in India as well. The new laboratory, along with other centres in other parts of the world, will play a crucial role in the final stage of the vaccine design process.

Designing the immunogens is done through a partnership IAVI has with the Indian Medicinal Chemistry Program (IMCP), where scientists from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the New Delhi-based International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology are involved. IMCP was established in 2007.