Toward a Cure for AIDS

HIV VACCINES

Large-scale trials for HIV vaccines in countries where the virus is most widespread may soon be possible, thanks in part to research conducted by Cesar J. Lopez ’09.

Lopez was part of a team at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center that tested the feasibility of using dry-blood spot cards to preserve blood for HIV testing at a later date.

A patient at a low-tech clinic could potentially provide a single drop of blood and have the sample sent to a central facility, where it would undergo high-tech testing for the existence of HIV.

Last summer, Lopez, a chemical and physical biology major, tested bodily fluids of monkeys infected with Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (the equivalent of HIV in monkeys). He found that the viral levels detected in stored blood were comparable to levels detected in fresh blood.

His findings indicated that it was feasible to preserve blood stored in the cards for high-tech HIV testing rather than rely solely on fresh blood samples.

Most clinics in sub-saharan Africa, where 22.5 million people are HIV positive, cannot afford the equipment and personnel to perform the high-tech procedure, known as nucleic acid testing, Lopez said.

Nucleic acid testing identifies the amount of HIV in a blood sample and can deliver results as early as a week after infection.

Clinicians depend on monitoring the viral levels since many vaccines in development are aimed at reducing the number of HIV copies in infected patients.

Enabling large-scale use of nucleic acid testing is critical since the majority of HIV transmissions occur during an acute spike in viral levels during the first three to nine weeks after infection, Lopez said.

Access to these tests using dry-blood spot cards could alert people to infection in the earlier stages of the virus and possibly reduce its spread.

Lopez, a Quincy House resident, grew interested in HIV while volunteering at a center for low-income HIV patients in his hometown of San Jose, Calif.

It wasn’t until he took an introductory life sciences course that he realized he could use research to help stop the virus.

“That’s where I first saw how I could apply my passion for science to something I saw primarily as a social problem,” he said.

—Staff writer Sarah J. Howland can be reached at showland@fas.harvard.edu.

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