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History of Vaccines Blog
June 5, 2014
In 1982, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was a young researcher in Luc Montagnier’s lab at the Pasteur Institute, studying the control of retroviruses by their hosts. Late that year, a French virologist made an urgent request to her lab: would they look for signs of retroviral infection in a group of patients with a troubling new disease? As she says in her 2008 Nobel Prize biographical sketch, “It would have been a relatively routine procedure to detect the presence of a retrovirus” in cells. That statement is excessively modest, because, in fact, the task was not easy and rested on decades of earlier work. One immediate problem was that the unidentified pathogen, obtained from a patient’s lymph node biopsy, threatened to outrun the cells in culture. But once she thought to add more lymphocytes to keep up with the infection cycle, Barré-Sinoussi wrote that “isolation, amplification and characterisation of the virus rapidly ensued, and the first report was published in Science in May 1983.”
July 27, 2012
This past week, I had the chance to visit the International AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC. One of the most striking aspects of the conference was the number of young people who were there to advocate, coordinate, and communicate their beliefs and stories about AIDS. The youth have taken a stand and will certainly be a force in the future fight against the deadly disease. Here at History of Vaccines we strive to spread information about these horrific diseases to youth everywhere. After attending AIDS 2012, I realized how important it is to go beyond educating about the science of these diseases – and to actually teach young people what others in their generation are doing and how they got involved. Here are stories, tips, and inspirational quotes from some of the amazing youth I met at the conference. Keep up the good work, everyone!
September 26, 2011
Going to the movies is a time-honored way of getting away from the vagaries of work and home life and inhabiting a different and exotic place. I don’t know if car mechanics can really enjoy chase movies or cowboys can appreciate Westerns, but as a specialist in Infectious Diseases, I rarely get a chance to see someone plying my trade inside the multiplex. There are spoilers ahead, so read on cautiously if you have not yet seen Contagion and plan to go.
The new Steven Soderbergh movie, Contagion, is a fairly realistic guesstimate of what might happen if a highly contagious, new infectious agent started moving around the world and destroying people willy nilly like a marauding tornado. While there has never been an infection quite like “MEV-1” as depicted in Contagion, the question of how we would respond as a medical community and as a society is a worthy one to address. Whether the answer is right or wrong – well, let’s hope we never find out.
From an Infectious Diseases angle, the infection in Contagion is crafted to be highly transmissible and fatal. This would be like a hybrid of the 1918-1919 pandemic flu, Nipah virus and SARS. The end of the movie shows the mechanism via which MEV-1 began to infect humans, and it is highly reminiscent of Nipah and SARS. Thus has some built-in credibility as it builds on diseases that we already understand. It is also eerily reminiscent of the most recent big flu outbreak (A/California/2009 H1N1) where the virus contained elements that came from birds, pigs and people. The rapidity of spread lends the movie much of its terror, but is not far off the rapidity of spread of influenza. Similarly, the incubation period and time to death is also reminiscent of the 1918-1919 pandemic flu. So the film-makers have done their homework and created a plausible disaster scenario.
July 8, 2010
HIV is a challenging target for vaccine researchers for many reasons, not the least of which is its lack of stability. The surface proteins of the virus frequently change, keeping the immune system from recognizing it–and keeping researchers from selecting a surface protein as a stable target for a vaccine. At least one area on the surface of the virus, however, seems to remain fairly stable across all variants of HIV: a site located on the surface spikes the virus uses to bind to and infect immune cells. Now, two teams of researchers have found antibodies that attach to this site, preventing the virus from binding to immune cells, and have highlighted ways this discovery may lead to new advances in HIV vaccine designs. The antibodies are found in the blood serum of many individuals infected with HIV. The researchers selected HIV-1 isolates encompassing all of the major circulating subtypes of the virus, and showed that these antibodies could bind to–and neutralize–more than 90% of them. That broad ability to neutralize so many variants of the virus is because of the stability of the binding site, which remains the same among nearly all strains. Therefore, a vaccine that could “train” the human immune system to generate similar antibodies could provide protection against the majority of circulating HIV variants.
June 26, 2010
Smallpox, HIV, influenza: the names of these pathogens usually induce fear. Smallpox, although it has been eradicated for 30 years, killed millions in its time; HIV, a relative newcomer to the human race that appeared just a few years after smallpox was eradicated, infects 7,400 people each day. Influenza presents its own unique challenges with its tendency toward frequent genetic change, requiring new seasonal flu vaccines each year and sometimes surprising us with unexpected new strains.
Artist Luke Jerram examines these and other pathogens in Infectious Beauty, an exhibit of “glass microbiology” at the Heller Gallery in New York. In creating these pieces, according to his website, Jerram explores “the tension between the artworks’ beauty, what they represent and their impact on humanity. ”
Jerram consulted with virologists before designing the sculptures, which were then created by professional glassblowers. His motivation stemmed partly from dissatisfaction with the way viruses and bacteria are typically portrayed: in color, even though the electron microscope photos usually used to capture them are black and white. Jerram, who is partially colorblind, considered how artificial coloring of these pathogens affected viewers’ understanding of them.
May 20, 2010
On Monday, May 17, staff from the History of Vaccines project traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend “New Promise in the Search for HIV, TB and Malaria Vaccines,” a joint briefing held on the 30th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox. In their opening remarks, Dr. Alan Bernstein (Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise), Dr. R. Gordon Douglas, Jr. (Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation) and Colonel Chris Ockenhouse (U.S. Military Malaria Vaccine Program, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research) all stressed the need for continued efforts toward vaccines for malaria, HIV, and TB. They also highlighted the overlap between the incidence of the three diseases, as well as the interaction between them: Douglas specifically stressed the importance of developing a TB vaccine that can be used in HIV-positive individuals. We at the History of Vaccines project were happy to provide material for the keynote talk by Dr. Gregory Poland (Vaccine Research Group, Mayo Clinic). Dr. Poland discussed historical and contemporary challenges in vaccine development and deployment, including political agendas and the threat of diseases as bioweapons post-eradication.