Researcher Dan H. Barouch, MD, PhD, is at the forefront of the search for both an HIV/AIDS vaccine and a cure.
Dr. Barouch directs the Vaccine Program at the Ragon Institute at MGH, MIT and Harvard. Launched in 2009, the Ragon Institute is devoted to developing a vaccine for HIV/AIDS and pursuing other immunological advances.
The Ragon Institute works closely with the Center for Global Health at Massachusetts General Hospital. Through programs on a variety of fronts, the center aims to improve health among the most vulnerable in our global community by leveraging Mass General’s long legacy of innovation in medical care, education and scientific discovery.
With training in clinical infectious disease and immunology, Dr. Barouch has used a combination of clinical research and basic science to help forge new paths in HIV/AIDS research. Among his successes, he has uncovered novel ways to prevent and treat AIDS in monkeys, and he is advancing these concepts into clinical trials. The findings may lead to a vaccine that prevents the diversity of worldwide HIV strains and helps to contain the disease’s global spread.
Teamwork the Key on HIV/AIDS
This aspect of Dr. Barouch’s work has been greatly accelerated thanks to Bruce Walker, MD, director of the Ragon Institute and also a Mass General researcher. A leader in the global effort to eradicate HIV/AIDS, Dr. Walker has been instrumental in establishing HIV/AIDS studies and healthcare facilities in South Africa, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. He has consistently promoted teamwork among researchers, scientists and engineers who wouldn’t necessarily work together when studying new ways to combat HIV/AIDS.
Such teamwork is evident with some of the latest HIV research results. Dr. Barouch has collaborated with Dennis Burton, PhD, a professor of immunology and microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute in California, on research involving the use of potent HIV antibodies for therapy since 2012. He credits the Ragon Institute with sparking this collaboration.
“This work would not have happened without the Ragon Institute,” Dr. Barouch says. “This is a collaborative network of people, which helps form partnerships and collaborations — including among those who haven’t had a direct interaction before.”
New Ideas for a Global Battle
Dr. Barouch has been particularly busy as of late in the battle to eradicate HIV/AIDS. In October 2013, he published findings in the scientific journal Cell showing that an optimized form of a vaccine candidate can help block infection with a monkey version of HIV in monkeys. This vaccine is scheduled to enter clinical trials in 2014 and aims to be effective against the various strains of the virus circulating worldwide.
That same month, the research journal Nature published an article highlighting Dr. Barouch’s work involving the use of antibodies as a potential therapy in infected monkeys. He found that recently discovered potent HIV antibodies dramatically lowered the levels of virus in the blood and tissues, and also strengthened immune responses against the virus. Such antibodies act very differently than current antiretroviral drugs and may offer a new approach toward developing HIV treatments and possible cure strategies.
Finding new ways to approach illness is one of the Ragon Institute’s hallmarks. For instance, Dr. Walker’s lab is investigating how some people living with HIV do not need medication to prevent the infection’s spread through the body.
“HIV/AIDS is an infection of the immune system, so it cripples a person’s normal response to infection. It alters itself continuously and integrates into the host chromosome and becomes a part of a person’s DNA,” Dr. Walker says. “The virus is so variable from person to person. To be able to protect against so many of the potential strains is a vaccine challenge we have never had to confront.”
Moving Past Monkeys
I believe it’s not a question of whether or not we’ll develop an HIV vaccine; it’s a question of how soon,” says Bruce Walker, MD, director of the Ragon Institute and a leader in the global effort to eradicate HIV/AIDS.
But harnessing the mechanism that allows some people with HIV to stay healthy, without medication, is a key point in prevention — one that might halt the spread of HIV/AIDS, Dr. Walker notes.
Dr. Barouch’s work with monkeys is a step in the right direction. “We have evidence of better protection in an animal model than has ever been achieved,” Dr. Walker says. “Whether that will transfer into better protection in humans is not yet known, but we have a clear path forward. I believe it’s not a question of whether or not we’ll develop an HIV vaccine; it’s a question of how soon.”
The next step, according to Dr. Barouch, is moving this concept into humans. “We’re continuing to do preclinical studies in animals to further understand the phenomenon and to deepen our insight into this biology,” he explains. “Can traditional drugs act synergistically with these potent antibodies? We could determine how well these antibodies work in monkeys receiving antiviral therapy. That could help refine strategies that will inform how we design clinical trials [with humans].”
A Two Front War to Eradicate HIV/AIDS
Dr. Barouch notes that both an HIV/AIDS cure and vaccine are still many years away. “But there are enough basic research advances that suggest the development of an HIV vaccine is possible, which could not have been said five years ago,” he says.
While there’s a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm in the field, Dr. Barouch adds, research toward a cure for HIV is very much still in its infancy. However, the Ragon Institute’s efforts supporting such research are integral to sustaining that momentum.
“We’re fighting a war on two fronts: the cure field and the vaccine field,” he says. “If we can do both of these, we can end the HIV epidemic.”
Learn more about the Ragon Institute and how you can support their research.