A Scientist’s Take on the Future of an HIV Vaccine

By Chelsea Bailey | May 16, 2014

Lindsay Wieczorek, Ph.D., a scientist at the U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP) investigates the link between the body’s natural immune response to HIV and maternal-to-child transmission.

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In honor of HIV Vaccine Awareness Day (May 18), the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) caught up with viral immunologist Lindsay Wieczorek, Ph.D.  Dr. Wieczorek is devoted to studying the immune response to HIV and developing an effective HIV vaccine. Read below to learn what she has to say about the possibility of a future without HIV/AIDS.

To many researchers, creating a viable HIV vaccine seems like an elusive moving target, but that’s precisely what keeps virologist Dr. Lindsay Wieczorek engaged and passionate about her research. 

“Viruses are very simple yet the interaction with the host is complex; studying HIV has only made this more clear,” she said.  “Every time we learn something new about HIV and its interaction with the immune system it reveals another layer of complexity, another aspect to be considered and leveraged for vaccine design.”

Despite the virus’ intricacy, Dr. Wieczorek says each new discovery brings us one step closer to a viable HIV vaccine.

“It’s hard not to be dedicated,” she admitted. “The allure and the impact that an HIV vaccine will have on global health is what keeps me, and most researchers in this field, motivated.

“It’s about improving quality of life and helping support some of these countries that are really struggling with this epidemic.”

Dr. Wieczorek was the 2013 recipient of EGPAF's Susie Zeegen Postdoctoral Award. She said the two-year research scholarship has allowed her and her team to delve deeper into understanding the immune response to HIV and it’s possible role in mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV, with an eye for how their findings could impact future vaccine design.

As a scientist at the U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP), Dr. Wieczorek and her team study samples collected in the 1990s from HIV-positive pregnant women and their infants after birth. Because the samples were collected before antiretroviral drugs were widely available, the fluids allow Dr. Wieczorek and her team to better understand the natural role neutralizing antibodies play in HIV transmission.

The team focuses its analysis on a region of the surface of the virus known as the “V2 region” because antibodies that target this area have been shown to correlate with lower rates of HIV transmission or infection.  The research builds on findings from the RV 144 Phase III HIV Vaccine Trial, which showed moderate efficacy in preventing HIV infection.

“We hope that by better understanding HIV and the immune response that develops during infection, we can identify protective mechanisms of neutralizing antibodies. These findings can then be translated into improvements for potential HIV vaccines,” Dr. Wieczorek said.

“Fortunately, technology has improved vastly since these study samples were collected 20 years ago; it’s really advanced the way we analyze and understand the immune system. Now we can ask different questions.”

For the last 30 years, the global health community has achieved incredible milestones in preventing and treating HIV, but ultimately it will be difficult to halt the virus’ relentless progress without an effective vaccine.

“The vaccine has the highest potential to have the greatest impact in shifting the direction of the epidemic,” Dr. Wieczorek said, but she admits that she cannot really imagine what that day will feel like. 

Dr. Wieczorek and her team plan to continue focusing on uncovering as many insights as they can into the virus until the dream of an HIV vaccine becomes a reality. 

EGPAF applauds scientists and researchers like Dr. Wieczorek and her team, who have dedicated their careers to ending HIV/AIDS. We will continue to support innovative and collaborative research focused on furthering global efforts to eliminate HIV/AIDS in children.

May 18, 2014 is HIV Vaccine Awareness Day.  Click here to learn more about EGPAF’s ongoing HIV research projects and global progress toward creating an HIV vaccine.

Dr. Wieczorek is a scientist with the U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP), an HIV research program dedicated to protecting U.S. troops from infection and reducing the global impact of the disease.