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$3.5M NIH Award to Fund Study of Immune Response to HIV

By Maryland Today Staff

Researchers at the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR) will use a $3.5 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how the immune system produces highly specialized antibodies, with the goal of designing and and testing novel vaccine candidates that improve the protective antibody response against HIV-1, the most common variant of the virus.

The study is led by Yuxing Li, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She is working with Brian Pierce, an assistant professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland. Both are IBBR fellows.

Li's research lab at IBBR is funded in part by the MPowering the State strategic partnership, an initiative that leverages the complementary strengths of the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The immune response to natural infection is a complex, step-by-step process that results in the production of progressively better antibodies.

"A major challenge to HIV-1 vaccine development has been a lack of understanding of how to direct the immune system down a very specific path toward protective antibody responses," Li said. "We know that the best antibodies recognize the viral surface protein Env (or HIV envelope glycoprotein), but, so far, using Env as a vaccine has not elicited such desirable antibodies."

To study this paradox, researchers have used samples from HIV-infected individuals to trace the path by which effective antibodies are produced back to the beginning of the process. Li and Pierce will use structural and computational biology to design and produce novel variants of Env that they hypothesize will shepherd the immune system along that pathway.

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