On the Brink of a Cure: An Innovative Immunologist’s Quest for an AIDS Vaccine

Louis Picker, an immunologist at Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University, believes he’s working toward a vaccine to prevent and cure AIDS: “I think within 15 years we’ll have both.” In 2013, his vaccine research showed the first evidence of monkeys eradicating the AIDS-causing virus from their bodies; he inoculated them with weakened CMV — or cytomegalovirus, an infectious agent in the herpes family — which not only pumped up their immune systems and fought off the virus, but killed it off entirely. At Portland Monthly, Jennifer Abbasi profiles the ambitious researcher, whose project’s first human study is set to begin later this year.

Picker set out to prevent AIDS, not cure it. In 2006, he and his team began vaccinating macaques against SIV, the monkey version of HIV. The researchers placed bits of SIV genes inside weakened CMV, hoping the macaques’ immune systems would then mount their natural immediate, large-scale response to CMV. “The immune system will make a response both to the CMV genes and to the SIV or HIV genes that will be in the same flavor, so to speak,” Picker explains. This approach contrasts sharply with that of most HIV vaccine projects, which typically focus on generating antibodies to block infection. Instead, Picker’s method aims to provoke T cells to prevent an infection from progressing to disease. Two years after he inoculated the first group of monkeys with the CMV-based vaccine, he exposed them to SIV.

In 2013, Nature reported Picker’s surprising findings: not only were most of the macaques able to control SIV, but over time their immune systems completely killed off the virus. It was the first evidence of monkeys eliminating the AIDS-causing virus from their bodies. Says Koff: “Louis straddles the prevention and the cure. The most intriguing thing about his vaccine is that the responding animals appear to clear the infection.”

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