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Opening a Path toward an HIV Vaccine

Growing up in Kenya, James Meyo (Kenya, Mahindra UWC, Bates ’14) saw a lot of sickness from infectious disease. Now he’s working toward a future that could have much less of that sort of suffering. 

As an immunology research technician with the Ragon Institute, a division of MIT, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital, James is part of an effort to develop an HIV vaccine. His team has developed some promising insights into how a family of protein receptors in cells, called SLAM receptors, recognize the HIV protein and then help trigger the immune response. 

At present, James explains, “Our bodies are not capable of recognizing the protein in a quick and efficient manner — so we’re incapable of clearing out the virus before it spreads. We basically need to make the healthy cells more effective at attacking the sick ones. If you expose healthy cells to HIV proteins, you find that the immune cells express a lot more SLAM receptors. But if the immune cells get infected with the live virus, you find that the expression of the SLAM receptors goes down. This tells us that the SLAM receptors play a role in fighting HIV.” 

If the team’s work does lead to a vaccine, that would be far less costly and burdensome than fighting HIV with drugs. “That’s something we would like to get done as soon as possible,” says James. He’s also working on tuberculosis research, and hopes to earn a PhD in the field of human-pathogen interaction. “I’m really interested in going down that path,” he says.