Dr. Rui Kong, Ph.D.

Virology and Immunology
Emory University
Recruited: 2020

As a talented early-career virologist, Rui Kong has already made impressive contributions to the field of HIV research by identifying a potential new target for an HIV-1 vaccine.

While scientists have made great strides in developing treatments for HIV-1 - the most common form of the virus - designing a successful vaccine has proved challenging due to the wide variation in viral strains. A successful vaccine will need to target a piece of the virus that's similar across strains, eliciting "cross-reactive" antibodies to fight them all. That's been a tough target to find.

Through his work at the NIH Vaccine Research Center, Kong helped identify the fusion peptide as a vulnerable site on HIV-1. The fusion peptide is a string of amino acids the virus uses to enter cells, making it an essential and critical piece of its machinery. It is similar across many diverse strains of HIV-1, and Kong and his colleagues discovered the immune system can develop cross-reactive antibodies toward the fusion peptide.

Building on their identification of the fusion peptide as a vaccine target, Kong and his team are developing a novel vaccination strategy that uses sequential immunization, a kind of double-shot approach to boost the immune response.

The first shot would target a variety of HIV-1 fusion peptide sequences, covering most known strains of the virus. The second shot would target something that encases the virus - an "envelope glycoprotein" that helps HIV enter cells (and also holds the fusion peptide). Kong believes that the first shot will prepare the immune system for developing a more focused immune response to the entire glycoprotein.

What's significant about this approach is that even if the envelope glycoprotein of a particular strain of HIV-1 looks different from the one in the vaccine, the immune system will still know to attack it - as long as the fusion peptide is the same or similar.

Preliminary testing of Kong's sequential immunization approach in animals - including mice, guinea pigs and non-human primates - has shown promising results.

Since launching his lab in 2020 at the Emory Vaccine Center, Kong has focused on expanding his investigation of the fusion peptide and developing more novel methods to target it. Eventually, these strategies could prove effective against other diseases, particularly those with diverse strains and limited potential targets, like influenza.