The HPV vaccine, which protects against the cervical cancer–causing human papillomavirus, is one example of how basic laboratory research is helping to save countless lives. Dr. Denise Galloway’s lab at Fred Hutch showed that nearly every case of cervical cancer arises from HPV infection. Her team studied how long HPV persists, the immune response to HPV infection and how many infected people go on to get cancer — all crucial information for designing a vaccine trial. Using a key HPV protein, they created vaccine-like particles in which a single viral protein folds up to look like the real virus. They also performed the first proof-of-principle clinical trial showing that an HPV vaccine can indeed protect against HPV infection. The Galloway Lab continues its research on the HPV vaccine with a focus on fine-tuning the dosage required for protection.
Researchers in our Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division are building on fundamental insights about the immune system and the structure of antibodies to create new vaccines. One priority is the search for effective broadly neutralizing antibodies — which should be more difficult for HIV to evade through natural, rapid mutation. For example, Dr. Leo Stamatatos has designed two candidate HIV vaccines based on broadly neutralizing antibodies that will be tested in clinical trials. Outside of HIV, research by structural biologist Dr. Marie Pancera has identified an antibody that might be protective against malaria if given by infusion or stirred by a new vaccine.
Another example of our impact is the work of HIV researcher Dr. Julie Overbaugh, whose research includes a seminal collaborative study that found that breastfeeding doubles the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child. Samples from the study continue to provide insights that may help inform HIV vaccine design.
Vaccines that encourage the body to attack an existing tumor — by recruiting cancer-specific immune cells known as T cells — are an extremely promising area of research. The first therapeutic cancer vaccine, for treating prostate cancer that has metastasized, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2010. Fred Hutch investigator Dr. Matthias Stephan is working to improve the effectiveness of therapeutic cancer vaccines by combining nanoparticles that carry cancer vaccine-specific T-cell receptor genes with a vaccine designed to trigger an immune response to a patient’s tumor. Dr. Shailender Bhatia is studying the efficacy of injecting an immune-boosting compound into the tumors of patients with late-stage Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare and aggressive type of skin cancer.
Fred Hutch researchers are working to translate fundamental knowledge about the immune system to improve the design of vaccines, as well as develop novel approaches that can decrease cost and increase accessibility — for example, by addressing production, storage and safety factors. Our researchers are also exploring the use of gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR to engineer B cells — the type of blood cell that produces antibodies — to generate disease-specific, protective antibodies directly, without a vaccine. Our computational biologists, including Dr. Trevor Bedford, are tracking epidemics of Ebola, Zika and influenza so they can provide guidance on strategies to contain the spread of these diseases.
Vaccines have been among the great success stories in medical science, drastically reducing infections from such viruses as measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis; nearly eliminating polio; and eradicating diseases such as smallpox. However, infectious diseases still account for more than 18 percent of deaths worldwide. Among the devastating infections for which scientists are still trying to develop a vaccine are HIV, malaria and dengue.
Testing of experimental vaccines in human clinical trials is a crucial step. The HIV Vaccine Trials Network conducts all phases of clinical trials for experimental HIV vaccines, from evaluating vaccines for safety to testing vaccine efficacy. Fred Hutch biostatisticians including Dr. Peter Gilbert lead efforts to design, track and analyze results of these studies. Ongoing trials involve hundreds of partner institutions around the world, from Europe and Africa to North and South America. The Seattle Vaccine Trials Unit enrolls participants in HIV vaccine studies that are coordinated by the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and other networks. The Seattle Malaria Clinical Trials Center, established by Fred Hutch and the Infectious Disease Research Institute, tests experimental malaria vaccines and drugs.