HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, a pandemic viral disease with an annual death toll of about 1.8 million people. Although current treatments can slow down the course of the disease, there still is no curative treatment or protective vaccine in sight. A major obstacle for the development of effective HIV vaccines is the high structural variability of the viral spike proteins gp120, gp41 and a number of defense mechanisms that hinder the immune system from eliciting broadly virus-neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs). However, the recent discovery of such bnAbs in HIV-infected individuals has electrified the field and shows that in principle, the immune system is capable of producing protective binding reagents against HIV.
My research focuses on the application of combinatorial protein engineering principles to the discovery of novel HIV vaccine candidate immunogens. Libraries of HIV spike protein variants are displayed on yeast cells. Known bnAbs and patient serum samples are used to identify and isolate candidate immunogens using fluorescence-activated cell sorting. Individual spike protein variants are characterized for their biophysical properties and glycosylation profiles.