Over the last decade, there have been incredible advancements in developing drugs to treat people with HIV, as well as to prevent infection in higher-risk groups. However, these treatment regimens face a myriad of economic and social challenges, and a universal approach is still required to combat the deadly virus.

“We need a vaccine to help end the AIDS pandemic,” says William Schief, PhD, professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research.

Schief and his team are focused on developing an effective HIV vaccine using a novel strategy: eliciting broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs). A rare type of antibody, bnAbs can fight and protect against many variants of a virus. Researchers have long struggled to identify and induce the appropriate bnAbs for HIV vaccination, but Schief’s lab—in collaboration with many others at Scripps Research and beyond—is applying a variety of computation-guided and structure-based design techniques to overcome these historic hurdles.

“For HIV, only a universal vaccine will work, because there are so many different strains—and no one knows which strain they’re going to be exposed to,” says Dennis Burton, PhD, chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology. Burton is enthusiastic about a bnAb vaccine approach, partnering with Schief’s lab.

Schief and his collaborators have numerous studies and clinical trials ongoing. Schief and Andrew Ward, PhD, professor in the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology, teamed up to publish two new papers in Immunity, which described and validated the design in the first step of their vaccine approach (September 2022). Even more recently, Schief’s study in Science revealed promising new insights about IAVI G001: the first-in-human clinical trial evaluating their novel, multi-stage HIV vaccine regimen (December 2022). 

With this encouraging data in hand, Schief and his team continue to work tirelessly toward achieving their overarching mission. “We believe this vaccine design strategy will be essential to make an HIV vaccine and may help the field create vaccines for other difficult pathogens,” he says.

Along with Schief, Burton and Ward, there are several other scientists at Scripps Research who are working toward creating a universal HIV vaccine. This includes Ian Wilson, PhD (Hansen Professor of Structural Biology and chair of the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology); Richard Wyatt, PhD (professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology); Michael Zwick, PhD (professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology); Bryan Briney, PhD (associate professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology); and Devin Sok, PhD (director, Antibody Discovery and Development, IAVI, and a principal investigator at IAVI’s Neutralizing Antibody Center headquartered at Scripps Research). Schief is collaborating with many of these Scripps Research investigators—including Burton, Ward, Wilson and Sok—as well as with multiple outside universities and institutions.