ISU professors research vaccine for AIDS

Rachel Sinn

April 2012 will mark 25 years since President Ronald Reagan declared AIDS as public health enemy No. 1. Iowa State is fortunate enough to have a faculty member working on a vaccine to prevent humans from contracting the disease altogether.

Dr. Michael Cho, associate professor of Biomedical Sciences, has been closely researching HIV-1 for much of his career in hopes of developing a vaccine.

AIDS is a disease of the immune system and is characterized by increased ability to be harmed by opportunistic infections caused by the retrovirus HIV. It can be transmitted through blood or blood products that enter the body’s bloodstream and especially by sexual contact or contaminated hypodermic needles.

“We are focusing on eliciting humoral immunity. A vaccine would be cost effective, and it’s at the level of prevention rather than treatment,” Cho said. “We’re working on a vaccine for humans, but we use small animals to evaluate the immune response. The goal is to induce the immune response that will recognize all types of the virus, that’s where the difficulty is.”

Cho explained that once a good immune response is found in the mice and rabbits, primates are then evaluated for their immune responses before researchers are able to try anything on humans.

“The pandemic started in the early 1980s. Fortunately, scientists have developed many drugs that can prevent the virus from replicating,” Cho said.

HIV-1 patients take this medication so the drugs can hold off the virus from replicating. However, if patients stop taking these medications, the virus will be able to replicate again, which Cho pointed out is not very practical.

“So you would have to take drugs throughout your entire life, which can be very costly and there are many side effects,” Cho said. “The death rate has gone down, because of the drugs, but the problem is there are many more patients in the developing worlds that can’t spend $10,000 on drugs.”

Cho expressed his frustration with society’s lack of commitment to funding more research to develop a cure or a vaccine.

“It’s like insurance, no one likes paying insurance until they get into an accident,” Cho said. “When it comes to diseases, as long as they’re not infected, they don’t really want to invest in it until they realize they might be at risk to get infected.”

Cho has taken steps to further research in Iowa by initiating a program project grant of $7 million in conjunction with the University of Iowa and other schools to try and collaborate and develop a vaccine for HIV-1.

But beyond research, prevention education is vital to keep the nation healthy, Cho said.

Susan Carpenter, professor in animal science, using virology research studies the equine infectious anemia virus which is related to HIV-1. It is an animal model of HIV-1.

“Both HIV-1 and [anemia virus] are highly variable retroviruses that cause lifelong persistent infections in their host,” Carpenter said. Carpenter studies the strategies the anemia virus uses to invade the host immune response and persist in the host.

“I’m not aware of what ISU is currently doing to educate people on HIV/AIDS,” Carpenter said. “I think people in the U.S. have been fairly well educated on general aspects of HIV/AIDS, transmission and anti-viral drugs. They may be less well-informed about the current research/progress to date.”

“HIV as well as any other sexually transmitted diseases are problems, so the university needs to make sure that infectious disease education is taught to students who are sexually active,” Cho said. “It’s an equal opportunity disease; it can affect you regardless of your sexual orientation, your gender, your race or economic status.”

Carpenter acknowledges the progress made in vaccine design and the encouraging results from a recent vaccine trial. However, she agrees a vaccine is still years away.

“New research areas are focused on eliminating all viruses from an infected host, but a cure for HIV-1 infected people will not be in the near future,” Carpenter said.