Key to HIV Vaccine in Cells of Rare Individuals

By Nadia Macias

UTEP News Service

Since the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was identified as the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 1983, more than 30 million people have died from AIDS-related causes. Last year, approximately 34.2 million people were living with it, according to the World Health Organization.  Each year, millions more are infected. 

Although antiretroviral drugs can control progression to AIDS, they cannot cure or slow the spread of the disease. For everyone who begins treatment, three others become infected. June Kan-Mitchell (right), Ph.D., a UTEP faculty member, is investigating a new population of T cells that recognize and fight HIV.June Kan-Mitchell (right), Ph.D., a UTEP faculty member, is investigating a new population of T cells that recognize and fight HIV.

HIV vaccines are the best hope for ending the HIV pandemic.

That’s why June Kan-Mitchell, Ph.D., has dedicated herself to help in this research endeavor.

“HIV is a major global health problem,” said Kan-Mitchell, professor of biological sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso.

She recently received a four-year, $4 million grant award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to explore a new avenue of research to help design new generations of HIV vaccines that will trigger the human body to make a protective immune response against the virus.

HIV is transmitted from person to person engaged in certain high-risk behavior. It attacks the immune system by infecting a population of important white blood cells called the CD4 positive T cells. Loss of these cells reduces the ability to fight off other infections. AIDS is the final clinical stage of HIV infection, when the individual has a dangerously low level of CD4 T cells and has one or more opportunistic infections, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis.

Kan-Mitchell’s grant research supported by the new award will focus on a new population of human T cells that recognize HIV. Her UTEP research team discovered the cells in conjunction with collaborators at leading research universities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Spain.

“We have a cohort of patients who are able to control HIV without any drug therapy,” said Paul Goepfert, Ph.D., one of Kan-Mitchell’s collaborators. Goepfert is a clinical immunologist from The University of Alabama at Birmingham. He has been following a cohort of rare HIV positive patients known as “elite controllers” or “long term non-progressors.”

“These individuals maintain control and progress slowly or not at all to AIDS without the need for antiretroviral therapy,” he said. “June and I are both determining what it is about the immune response in these patients that allows such viral control. The goal is to better understand protective immune responses to help guide HIV vaccine discovery.”

Kan-Mitchell's team also depends on local healthy donors who have participated in her research by donating blood. 

“We take T cells that you have in your body and educate them to recognize HIV proteins," said Janelle Salkowitz-Bokal, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at UTEP who works with Kan-Mitchell. "We then see how they can fight HIV in the test tube.”