10/20/2004 07:00:00

Caltech Biologists Pursue Promising New Approach in Treatment of HIV/AIDS and Cancer

PASADENA, Calif.—In response to the arduously slow progress in finding cures for AIDS and cancer, Caltech researchers are now investigating a promising new approach in the treatment of these diseases.

With a $1.5 million matching grant from the Skirball Foundation in New York, Caltech biologists have established the Engineering Immunity project, designed to create a novel immunological approach to treating–and even some day preventing–HIV infection and some cancers like melanoma.

The immune system provides humans with a powerful defense against infectious diseases–but sometimes, it fails. Utilizing an innovative, integrated approach, the Engineering Immunity project will combine gene therapy, stem cell biology, and immunotherapy to arm the immune system; this integrative methodology offers groundbreaking potential for treatment of these diseases and others for which the immune system currently fails to provide defense.

Caltech President David Baltimore, who won the Nobel Prize in 1975 for his work in virology and cancer research, stated, "The Engineering Immunity project advocates a new approach to therapy for AIDS and cancer with revolutionary implications for the treatment of these and many other diseases. It is an innovative research project that holds special significance for the future of biomedical sciences."

In the fight against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, T-cell immunity and T-cell-focused therapies and vaccines have been methods widely investigated and pursued. However, antibodies often provide the best protection against viruses, and virtually all vaccines for other viral diseases are designed to elicit antibody-based immunity. Antibodies against HIV do appear during HIV infections, but heretofore, they had not been able to provide therapeutic advantage to most patients. Rare neutralizing antibodies have been identified, but have not proven valuable because a general way to elicit their production in all patients has not been found. Moreover, most of them are effective only at very high concentrations that are hard to maintain in a person by conventional means. Thus, early attempts to elicit antibody-based immunity against HIV have largely failed.

The Engineering Immunity integrated methodology involves utilizing retroviruses, which are natural carriers of genes. Retrovirus vectors will be produced that encode antibodies found to be effective against HIV. Utilizing retroviruses, the Baltimore Laboratory at Caltech, in collaboration with Caltech structural biologist Pamela Bjorkman, will introduce specific genes into stem cells. These genes will encode specificity molecules on the immune cells, thereby arming the immune cells to kill selected agents or cells, i.e., the cells that are growing HIV or particular cancer cells.

The Engineering Immunity initiative will provide a new route to the production of antibodies with therapeutic, and even protective, ability for a potential cure of AIDS, melanoma, and other diseases ultimately.

The Skirball Foundation, an independent foundation created in 1950 by Jack H. Skirball, is dedicated primarily to medical research and care, educational and social needs of disadvantaged children, and advancing the highest values of the Jewish heritage. Among the many institutions that the Foundation has supported are the Skirball Cultural Center, the Salk Institute, the Venice Family Clinic, the Jewish Childcare Association in New York City, and the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at New York University.

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Contact: Deborah Williams-Hedges (626) 395-3227 debwms@caltech.edu

Visit the Caltech Media Relations Web site at: http://pr.caltech.edu/media

Written by Deborah Williams-Hedges