SAAVI awards first AIDS vaccine grants


The South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI), a public–private initiative to produce a national HIV/AIDS vaccine (Nature Med. 5, 252; 1999), has announced its first award recipients. Four research proposals were selected from a total of ten, and each will receive substantially more funding than that meted out by the country’s other grantgiving bodies, which typically dispense R300,000–500,000 (US$50,000–83,000) per project. Each proposal was evaluated by two non-South African referees. Two basic science projects (both targeting clade C which is the predominant HIV subtype in South Africa), one “Education and Advocacy” program and one “Ethical Issues in HIV/AIDS Vaccine Development” project were selected for funding. A fifth program of “Immunological Support” is to be subjected to further review before a funding decision is taken. The projects have been allocated a combined total of R7 million from the R20 million SAAVI budget. William Malegapuru Makgoba, president of the South African Medical Research Council, which oversees SAAVI, told Nature Medicine that the remainder of the money will be held in reserve because SAAVI is hoping to support Phase I clinical trials in South Africa of the North Carolina company AlphaVax’s Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus vaccine—a project that received $4.6 million funding from the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative last year (Nature Med. 5, 5; 1999). Both SAAVI basic research projects are lead by female scientists, a sign of changing times in South African research. Anna-Lise Williamson from the Health Sciences Faculty at the Observatory Cape Town, principal investigator and coordinator of one of the selected projects, told Nature Medicine that her team will receive R3 million for the first year, and is using env and gag–pol genes from a local HIV clade C isolate to construct vaccines based on recombinant BCGand plantderived virus-like particles. “If these approaches are successful the technology already exists in South Africa to produce candidate vaccines, and they will be relatively inexpensive,” says Williamson. The vaccines will be compared to modified vaccinia Ankara (MVA) and DNA vaccines expressing the same HIV subtype C genes. Combinations of different vaccines will then be assessed, using one to prime, and the other to boost, the immune response. The second basic research project centers on a more unconventional approach and is lead by Estrelita Janse van Rensburg, head of the department of Medical Virology at the University of Stellenbosch. Her group receives R2 million and will focus on the development and production of HIV proteins by recombinant strains of filamentous fungi, Aspergillus sp. and Pichia stipitis. “The idea is to use the recombinant fungus vaccine in a prime-boost strategy, in combination with a subtype C DNA vaccine,” says van Rensburg. Rensburg’s team also plans to clone env and gag genes of clade C isolates and, through collaboration with the US Department of Microbiology in the Faculty of Science, will establish fungal eukaryotic expression systems for the production of HIV proteins. In parallel, they will genotype the HLA of the lymphocytes used to determine the best, ‘common’ HIV-derived CTL epitopes. The predominant HLA types in South Africa are presently unknown and their elucidation will help not only South African vaccine R&D but also worldwide efforts. Each project must re-apply for funding annually, and Makgoba has to submit a progress report to the Ministry of Health and the president every four months. KAREN BIRMINGHAM, LONDON

DOI: 10.1038/15153

Cite this paper

@article{Birmingham1999SAAVIAF, title={SAAVI awards first AIDS vaccine grants}, author={Karen Birmingham}, journal={Nature Medicine}, year={1999}, volume={5}, pages={1220-1220} }