September 30, 2008 / 8:08 PM / 9 years ago

New U.S. institute to focus on AIDS vaccine

WASHINGTON, Sept 30 (Reuters) - A new AIDS vaccine research center dedicated to solving one of the stickiest problems holding back development of such a vaccine will open in California, researchers announced on Tuesday.

The $30 million facility is a joint venture by the nonprofit Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

"The world needs an AIDS vaccine to turn the tide on this devastating pandemic," Dr. Richard Lerner, president of the Scripps Research Institute, said in a statement.

"We are confident that this center will facilitate more productive exchanges among researchers and stimulate new ideas that will help to accelerate AIDS vaccine science."

The center at Scripps will be dedicated to one important aspect of making a vaccine -- stimulating the production of immune system compounds called neutralizing antibodies.

The AIDS virus infects an estimated 33 million people globally, according to the United Nations, and has killed 25 million since it was identified in the 1980s.

It affects the immune system, killing cells called T-cells that usually attack invaders. Patients die of infections such as tuberculosis, or of cancer.

Cocktails of drugs can control the virus but there is no cure. And efforts to make a vaccine have failed, in part because it attacks some of the cells usually activated by immunization, and in part because no vaccine can stimulate antibodies to help kill the virus.

"Finding a way to elicit neutralizing antibodies against HIV is the biggest challenge facing AIDS vaccine researchers today," said Dr. Seth Berkley, president and chief executive officer of IAVI.

The institute will recruit biologists, virologists, chemists and immunologists to work together in the lab and run tests in human volunteers.

"This reinvigorated approach will also make it easier for us to recruit and mentor the young scientists who represent the future of HIV/AIDS vaccine research," said Dennis Burton, who works at Scripps and IAVI.

The center is not yet built and no date has been announced for its opening. (Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Will Dunham and Xavier Briand)

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