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San Antonio On Front Lines Of AIDS Vaccine Research

Wendy Rigby
Texas Public Radio
Ruth Ruprecht, M.D., Ph.D., and Dr. Viraj Kulkarni are part of a research team at Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio working on a vaccine for AIDS

San Antonio scientists are on the front line of the battle to create a vaccine to prevent AIDS infections. No vaccine exists now.  The enemy is well-known, but this approach to winning the battle is new.

Ruth Ruprecht, M.D., Ph.D., is a woman on a mission to stop AIDS. The Texas Biomedical Research Institutescientist is part of a collaboration just granted $23 million by the National Institutes of Health.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Ruth Ruprecht, M.D., Ph.D., and Dr. Viraj Kulkarni are part of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute team working on an AIDS vaccine.

"It’s significant because it gives us the funds to go after a key question," Ruprecht said. "How can we stop the AIDS virus from infecting people?"

Some 90 percent of HIV patients get the virus through the surfaces that line the body cavities called the mucosa. That’s where Ruprecht and her colleagues at Northwestern and MIT want to stop the virus in its tracks.

The vaccine research will use rhesus macaque monkeys at the Institute as the animal model.

"Our approach is new," Ruprecht explained. "We have collaborated with a group in Switzerland and together we have shown that a new process called immune exclusion can trap the virus right there in the mucosal cavities."

The vaccine in development wouldn’t stop there. It would include a second line of defense of antibodies that go all over the body and a third component of immune cells that go after infected cells.

"We feel that if you have simultaneously all three defense mechanisms ready to go when the virus hits, you may be able to prevent infection," Ruprecht said.

As a young physician in Los Angeles, Ruprecht cared for some of the first AIDS patients. That experience has driven her career.

"I took care of young people who came to the hospital and we lost every one of them. All of them died.  It was very sad to see that there was nothing we could offer them," she remembered.

Ruprecht is  hopeful this federally-funded joint project will yield a long-awaited answer to a deadly problem. The AIDS epidemic has killed 35 million people. Some 50,000 people are infected each year in the United States.

Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.