While great strides have been made in treatment and prevention strategies for HIV/AIDS over the past three decades, there is still plenty of work to be done.
In recognition of World AIDS Day, we are sharing some recent work from the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, which was established in 2009 with a dual mission to contribute to the accelerated discovery of an HIV/AIDS vaccine and to serve as a world leader in the collaborative study of immunology.
The Institute was founded by a $100M donation from Phillip T. and Susan M. Ragon Institute Foundation and is led by Bruce Walker, MD.
In addition conducting advanced laboratory-based research to learn more about the mechanisms of HIV infection and immune response, the Ragon Institute team works closely with clinicians, scientists and community members in areas of South Africa that have been hardest hit by the disease.
You’ll see examples of these efforts in the highlights below.
“HIV represents the most pressing global health challenge of our generation. The yearly HIV prevention workshop sponsored by the Ragon Institute and our South African collaborators highlights the tremendous contributions being made by African scientists. Remarkably, samples are now being sent to the facilities in South Africa since the quality of some technologies there now outstrip what is available here.”Bruce D. Walker, MD, Director of the Ragon Institute
FRESH Program Looks to Address the Social and Economic Impact of HIV in South Africa
Despite advances in treatment and the availability of new protective strategies, South Africa remains continues to be one of the hardest-hit regions by the HIV epidemic in the world, with young women being at the greatest risk for infection.
For these women, the high risk of contracting HIV is compounded by a lack of social and economic opportunities.
The FRESH (Females Rising through Education, Support and Health) program was started by investigators from the Ragon Institute of Mass General, MIT and Harvard in 2012 at a shopping mall in KwaZulu-Natal, a South African province with one of the highest rates of infection in the world.
The mall serves as a neutral location for women in the community, who are reluctant to visit clinics due to the stigma associated with HIV testing and treatment.
Women visit the mall twice a week to participate in sessions covering a variety of areas, such as HIV prevention and treatment, self-esteem building, relationships and gender-based violence, and career development.
A Step Forward in the Search for an HIV Vaccine
Vaccines work by prompting the body to produce the antibodies needed to neutralize the harmful effects of invasive viruses or bacteria before an infection occurs. This is typically accomplished through exposure to a weakened or inert form of the disease.
A key challenge in developing an effective vaccine for HIV is that, for most individuals, antibodies alone are not enough to stop the progression of the disease. This is why most HIV-positive individuals will not survive without taking antiretroviral medication.
By studying the mechanisms of vaccine-generated protection for SIV—a disease in monkeys that is similar to HIV—a research team led by the Ragon Institute’s Galit Alter, PhD, was recently able to identify the process through which vaccine generated-antibodies can protect against HIV infection.
Their findings suggest that an effective HIV vaccine needs to produce antibodies that are capable of recruiting white blood cells to engulf and destroy the HIV virus and virus-infected cells.
Understanding this process could help to streamline and accelerate the development of effective new HIV vaccines.
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