Bette Korber at the Santa fe Institute

R&D Magazine has selected former SFI External Professor Bette Korber to receive their Scientist of the Year Award for 2018, recognizing her innovative approach to developing an HIV vaccine.

Korber, a theoretical biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has spent more than 25 years studying ways to create a globally effective HIV vaccine. That dream now seems to be about to be realized.

The HIV virus mutates very rapidly in the body, making it a nightmare to target with conventionally developed drugs and vaccines. In the early 1990s, Korber had a brainwave: to develop a single artificial protein that contained so many HIV proteins it was bound to activate the body’s powerful killer T cells.

To speed up the design of the process, Korber applied a genetic algorithm concept inspired partly by SFI research. Using the 800,000 HIV sequences in the database she had developed at LANL, Korber and her team, which included SFI External Professor Tanmoy Bhattacharya, identified epitopes — sequences on the virus that the immune system recognizes — that could form a mosaic vaccine.

The algorithm then duplicated the processes of natural selection over a number of generations to produce virtual proteins that contained many of the most common, and effective, epitopes. The eventual mosaic vaccine was turned into a real molecule and tested successfully on monkeys. This vindicated Korber’s approach and a large clinical trial was launched in November 2017 to assess the mosaic HIV vaccine regimen, initially involving over 2,600 HIV-negative women in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The wider impact of Korber’s vision is that researchers worldwide are adopting her approach to develop treatments for other diseases.

Read the article in R&D Magazine (November 11, 2018)

Watch the video by Los Alamos National Lab

Read a feature about Korber and Bhattacharya's evolution-inspired approach to vaccine development in the 2012 SFI Bulletin.