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Mount Sinai Hospital researcher begins project to explore new HIV-AIDS vaccine

Support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will help Dr. Kelly MacDonald further her work in preventing the spread of HIV-AIDS

August 6, 2010 - Scientists at Mount Sinai Hospital and the University of Toronto were awarded $1.25 million over five years from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to begin developing a new vaccine for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Mount Sinai Hospital lead researcher Dr. Kelly MacDonald’s team of seven investigators was one of only two research groups awarded prestigious CIHR ‘emerging team grants’ this year, which enable scientists and health experts from various disciplines to collaborate and coordinate their efforts in developing new HIV vaccines. 

“With this grant, we’re bringing new talent into the field of HIV-AIDS research in Canada,” said Dr. MacDonald, Microbiologist/Infectious Disease Consultant at Mount Sinai Hospital, Director of the HIV Research Program in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto, and holder of the Ontario HIV Treatment Network’s endowed Chair in HIV Research.

“These funds will allow us to expand our expertise in developing a vaccine to help prevent the global epidemic of the HIV-AIDS virus. Our goal is to create a cohesive group of experts who can make a long-term contribution to developing a strategy for combating the virus.” 

Current treatment to suppress the HIV virus includes a regimen known as ‘highly active antiretroviral treatment’ (or HAART), as well as public health education measures aimed at stopping the transmission of disease through behavioural changes (i.e., abstinence or use of condoms).

“Global efforts to keep up with the spread of HIV-AIDS are woefully inadequate,” said Dr. MacDonald, noting that for every two people starting treatment, five more are newly infected. Worldwide, 10 million people still require treatment.

For years, scientists internationally have been working to develop a vaccine to prevent the spread of this virus. Most prospective vaccines against HIV either stimulate the body to produce antibodies against the virus (i.e., proteins from our immune system that attack foreign antigens), or ‘kick start’ immune responses by stimulating the release of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) that eliminate HIV-infected cells from the body.

To help develop a more effective vaccine that prevents HIV infection, Dr. MacDonald’s team will design an agent that targets both immune pathways, right from the point of entry. The new CIHR grant will allow her group to focus on two major research projects.

The first project with co-investigator Dr. Mario Ostrowski (Associate Professor in Medicine/Immunology/Pathology at the University of Toronto, and Infectious Diseases Consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital) will be aimed at helping the body generate specific ‘inactivating’ antibodies against the HIV virus, both in the blood and genital mucosa. In a separate project, Dr. MacDonald’s group will safely ‘piggyback’ HIV genes into the body through the genome of a relatively common virus called Cytomegalovirus to generate an immune response. It is hoped that the resulting anti-HIV lymphocytes will target any invading HIV, initiating a multipronged attack against the virus. Compared with some other prospective vaccines, the Cytomegalovirus-based strategy is expected to provide long-term protection against the HIV virus.

Dr. MacDonald’s group will also investigate differences in how the new vaccine will work in males versus females, since recent evidence suggests there are sex-based differences in how the virus spreads.

“Vaccine development is an iterative process that requires several rounds of effort to generate the correct balance of responses in each arm of the immune system,” said Dr. Marc Ouellette, Scientific Director of CIHR’s Institute of Infection and Immunity. “The research that Dr. MacDonald’s team is pioneering will build timely scientific capacity in HIV vaccinology, and also in other potential vaccine-preventable infectious diseases such as hepatitis C, Influenza and West Nile Virus.”

In July 2010, at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, the Government of Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation renewed their commitment of up to $139 million to implement the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative.

The Government of Canada partners in the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) are the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Health Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and Industry Canada. The renewed CHVI features the creation of the CHVI Research and Development Alliance.
Worldwide, 33.4 million people are living with HIV-AIDS (approximately 65,000 in Canada), and 2.7 million new people are infected with the virus annually (including about 3,300 new infections in Canada).

About the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital

The Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, a University of Toronto affiliated research centre established in 1985, is one of the world's premier centres in biomedical research. Thirty-four principal investigators lead research in diabetes, cancer biology, epidemiology, stem cell research, women's and infants' health, neurobiology and systems biology. For more information on the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, please visit

Media contact

Karin Fleming
Mount Sinai Hospital, Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute
416-586-4800 ext. 2046