NIH funds strong research programs aimed at discovering new ways to combat diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and influenza—diseases that have no borders. NIH has already made breakthroughs, such as HIV/AIDS going from being a virtual death sentence 30 years ago to now—if people are put on proper therapy—being able to live essentially a normal life. Thanks to NIH-funded research, we continue to make important progress in infectious diseases that affect people across the globe.
An Outlandish Sum
“I went to [the NIH Director] with a budget that would seem outlandish. I wanted to quadruple the amount that we were doing in AIDS research in 1 year. I explained to him that this increase was necessary because the AIDS epidemic was going to explode in our faces. We had to be out in front, ahead of it.”
From the earliest reports of a new disease, scientists around the world focused their efforts on finding the cause of AIDS. They circulated information informally, they held meetings to exchange ideas, and they published promising findings. A pioneer in this effort was Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute. The identification of that virus, renamed human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, provided a specific target for blood-screening tests and for scientists around the world conducting research to defeat AIDS.
Right now, 1 out of every 300 people in the United States has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The is no cure for AIDS, and there is no vaccine to prevent HIV. A vaccine to prevent HIV infection is our best hope to end the epidemic.
“Success depends on deploying our tools based on the best available evidence. We know we can’t create an AIDS-free generation by dictating solutions from Washington.”
Reducing Transmission of HIV
from Mother to Child
NIH sponsored landmark clinical trials that demonstrated that by treating HIV-infected pregnant women, the chances of their infants being born uninfected increased dramatically. Plus, studies funded by NIH and others in Uganda in the 1990s contributed to World Health Organization recommendations that can help prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission while allowing women in resource-limited settings to breastfeed their infants safely.
Today, in the United States, there is less than a 1% chance that a child will become infected by his or her HIV-infected mother if she is taking anti-HIV medicines. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases continues its commitment to this research and helped launch the PROMISE study, a 15-country clinical trial comparing different antiretroviral treatment regimens in hopes of finding the safest and most effective ways to prevent mother-to-child transmission.
Reducing Infant HIV Deaths
A 2005 study sponsored in part by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases found that treating HIV-positive infants immediately with antiretroviral drugs dramatically reduced the rates of illness and death.
Each year in the United States, seasonal flu kills more than 36,000 people and hospitalizes 200,000 others. Because flu viruses change every year, vaccines need to change as well. NIH-funded researchers are looking for a “universal vaccine” that could work every year.
A Universal Vaccine?
“Our major goal is to now find a vaccine for influenza that we would refer to as a ‘universal’ vaccine that is good virtually every year or even in the face of a pandemic.”
NIH-funded researchers have developed a method to generate antibodies that attack a diverse array of influenza viruses in mice, ferrets, and monkeys, pointing the way to universal flu vaccine.
FluMist® was developed in part by NIH researchers. It is a nasal spray vaccine, instead of an injection.
FluMist is a licensed nasal spray flu vaccine that is based on live influenza viruses that have been weakened so they can't cause the flu. It may stimulate a broader immune response than the current vaccine, and it hurts less. NIH has a long history of working to develop the live influenza vaccine and continues to support clinical studies using FluMist.
Avian Flu Research Advances
The avian H5N1 influenza virus originated in birds, but some strains are now able to infect humans—and have caused a high rate of mortality. NIH-funded researchers found that just a few mutations allow the avian H5N1 influenza virus to spread through the air. Recent NIH clinical trials show the immune response to an H5N1 avian influenza vaccine was greatly enhanced in healthy adults if they first received a DNA vaccine expressing a gene for a key H5N1 protein. Such insights will help researchers prepare for potential future flu pandemics.
“An effective H5N1 influenza vaccine would provide a potentially lifesaving advance against a global health threat,” notes National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. “More broadly, development of this DNA vaccine technology has the potential to improve our production capacity for vaccines to prevent seasonal influenza and other diseases.” In another NIH-funded project, scientists collected the entire genetic blueprints of more than 5,000 human and avian influenza viruses taken from samples around the world to better understand and prevent flu.
NIH-funded scientists discovered “super” antibodies (red and orange) that protect against several types of flu. The antibodies appear to prevent the virus from fusing with human cells.
From decades of NIH-funded research, scientists know that the influenza A strains of flu virus have the potential to be quite dangerous. A few of these strains set off global outbreaks in 1918, 1957, and 1968, fueling fears recently about similar potential for the H1N1 flu that emerged in 2009. Because of the unpredictability of how and when flu emerges—and what impact it will have when it spreads—there is an urgent need to search for new drugs to combat the flu.
By studying the basic biology of flu, NIH-funded researchers recently discovered a type of antibody that neutralizes and protects against several viral subtypes. By gripping onto a common attachment site on the surface of influenza A viruses, these “super” antibodies appear to prevent the virus from fusing with and entering into human cells.