Researchers seek to solve mystery of
natural HIV control
In search of new vaccine strategies,
study will examine genetics, immune systems of those able to suppress
BOSTON - August 16, 2006 - An international, multi-institutional
research consortium is seeking to discover how a few HIV-infected
individuals are naturally able to suppress replication of the virus.
Controller Collaborative Study the first large-scale haplotype-mapping
study in people infected with HIV, is searching for genetic factors
that may explain these individuals' unique ability to control the
virus without treatment, sometimes as long as 25 years after infection.
"If we could discover how these individuals can coexist with
this virus without damage to their immune system and could find
a way to replicate that ability in others, we would have a recipe
for halting the HIV epidemic," says Bruce Walker, MD, director
AIDS Research Center (PARC) at Massachusetts General Hospital
and an initial organizer of the Elite Controller Collaborative Study.
Walker discussed the project in a media briefing today at the 16th
International AIDS Conference in Toronto.
Most people infected with HIV cannot control replication of the
virus with their immune systems alone. Unless antiviral medications
are used, the virus continues to reproduce until it overwhelms the
CD4 T helper cells, suppressing the immune response and leading
to AIDS. In the early 1990s, it was recognized that a small minority
of HIV-positive people remained healthy and did not progress to
AIDS despite many years of infection. The term "long-term nonprogressors"
was used to refer to this group. With today's more sensitive techniques
for measuring viral levels in the bloodstream, individuals who are
able to maintain low levels of HIV replication can be identified
soon after their infection is diagnosed. Some of these viremic controllers
can maintain viral loads below 2,000 copies/ml, while an even smaller
group, called elite controllers, have viral loads too low to be
detected by currently available assays.
"The primary goal of the Elite Controller Collaborative Study
is to identify the mechanism that explains control of viral replication
in both of these groups, " says Florencia Pereyra, MD, of PARC,
lead coordinator of the research team. "We want to use that
knowledge to develop a first-generation HIV vaccine, which may not
cure or prevent infection but could successfully suppress viral
levels. Since this natural ability is so rare, we need to work with
collaborators around the world to recruit the number of participants
we will need to determine what is going on.
"We expect to need data from at least 1,000 such individuals
in order to define the genetic factors associated with this extraordinary
outcome," she adds. "This effort will only be possible
with the collaboration of HIV researchers, providers, advocacy groups
and most important the HIV-infected individuals that fall in this
Those eligible to participate in the Elite Controller Collaborative
Study are HIV-positive adults, aged 18 to 75, who have maintained
viral loads below 2,000 copies without taking HIV antiviral medications.
Participation involves having a single blood sample taken, which
can be done by participants' local healthcare providers. Those located
near a participating research center
may choose to be followed over time and provide additional blood
"So far we have enrolled nearly 200 participants from 25 U.S.
states, and we are looking forward to adding participants from other
countries," says Pereyra. Potential participants or collaborating
providers seeking more information should contact Rachel Rosenberg,
Partners AIDS Research Center, (617) 726-5536 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to Walker, other organizers of the Elite Controller
Collaborative Study are Eric Lander, PhD, director of the Broad
Institute of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology;
Dennis Burton, PhD, of the Scripps Institute; Steven Deeks, MD,
University of California at San Francisco; and Mary Carrington,
PhD, of the U.S. National Cancer Institute. The current list of
consortium members is on the next page. The project is supported
by a philanthropic gift from the Mark and Lisa Schwartz Foundation.
The Partners AIDS Research Center, the project's coordinating center,
was established in 1995 in response to the continuing world-wide
AIDS pandemic. The center serves both Massachusetts General Hospital
and Brigham and Women's Hospital, the founding members of Partners
HealthCare, and is a natural progression of the more than 20-year
commitment by the clinicians and scientists at those institutions
to HIV and AIDS research and care. The center's scope has broadened
further with the participation of the Dana Farber/Partners Cancer
Center regarding AIDS oncology and close collaborative ties to Fenway
Community Health Center and the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital..
Massachusetts General Hospital, established in 1811, is the original
and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH
conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the United
States, with an annual research budget of nearly $500 million and
major research centers in AIDS, cardiovascular research, cancer,
computational and integrative biology, cutaneous biology, human
genetics, medical imaging, neurodegenerative disorders, regenerative
medicine, transplantation biology and photomedicine. MGH and Brigham
and Women's Hospital are founding members of Partners HealthCare
HealthCare System, a Boston-based integrated health care delivery
Media Contact: Sue
McGreevey, MGH Public Affairs
Physician Referral Service: 1-800-388-4644
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