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Chemistry faculty member receives $1.38 million NIH grant for HIV vaccine research

Monday, October 1, 2012

LAWRENCE – A faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Kansas has received a $1.38 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for research that will seek ways to improve the process of creating HIV vaccines.

Heather Desaire, professor of chemistry, received the grant for research that is investigating a group of HIV vaccine candidates and the proteins that make up those candidates. The project could help vaccine developers answer several critical questions, including identifying cell lines in which specific proteins should be expressed and why particular vaccine candidates have especially advantageous properties, such as the ability to bind tightly to desirable antibodies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1,148,200 people in the U.S. were infected with HIV at the end of 2009, with approximately 50,000 people newly infected each year.

Developers express a vaccine’s proteins in cells, using a process to carefully control the protein sequence. These proteins are also heavily glycosylated and disulfide bonded, features that are known as Post-Translational Modifications (PTMs). PTMs that are attached to proteins during the vaccine developers’ process cannot be easily predicted or controlled. Desaire’s research group will develop and implement methods to characterize the PTMs on a variety of vaccine candidates. This knowledge could help developers figure out which vaccine candidates have the most effective PTM profile.

Desaire will conduct her research, “Characterization of PTMs on Env to support HIV vaccine development,” in collaboration with Barton F. Haynes at Duke University Medical Center and Bing Chen at Harvard Medical Center.

The research was awarded a Research Project Grant (R01), the oldest grant offered by the NIH. The grant supports health-related research and development that adheres to the mission of the NIH “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life and reduce the burdens of illness and disability.”

Desaire joined the Department of Chemistry in 2002. She leads a research group of undergraduates, graduate students and professional scientific staff. She has won several teaching and research awards, including the William T. Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2009 and the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award from 2007-2012. Desaire developed the first course in mass spectrometry at KU and continues to cover innovative topics in her courses.

The Department of Chemistry is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The College enrolls about two-thirds of KU students and encompasses more than 55 departments, programs, centers, the School of Public Affairs and Administration and the School of the Arts. Nearly half of the students at KU earn their bachelor’s degrees from the College. Courses in the College cover hundreds of subjects including history, literature, chemistry, biology, art history, mathematics, anthropology, psychology, foreign language and political science.