In my laboratory, a method of reinvigorating the immune system so that it continues to fight chronic infections holds great promise for treatment vaccines against cancers, hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases. My team discovered that a chronic viral infection can “flip a switch” on the surface of critically important immune system T cells and effectively shut them down, a process known as cell exhaustion. We were able to flip these T cells back to the “on” position, enabling them to continue fighting infection. Strategies are now being perfected to stop chronic infections from flipping the switch in the first place. In the absence of cell exhaustion, ongoing active immune systems may have the ability to clear chronic infections in the same way the body fights the common cold.
The Emory Vaccine Center is at a landmark juncture; the first vaccine developed at the Center is progressing in human clinical trials. This AIDS vaccine, developed by Dr. Harriet Robinson’s group in collaboration with other investigators at the Emory Vaccine Center and scientists at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has proven to be highly effective in preventing AIDS in non-human primates. Our long-term goal is to develop an HIV vaccine that can be used worldwide to stop the AIDS pandemic. To advance these AIDS vaccine efforts, the Emory Vaccine Center-affiliated start-up company, GeoVax, Inc., was created to move our vaccines through the clinical trial process and into the market. Our Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center conducts vaccine clinical trials and promotes translational studies.