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Northeastern researcher collaborates on AIDS vaccine project

By studying the behavior of protein sugars in blood samples taken from AIDS patients, a Northeastern chemistry and chemical biology professor hopes to contribute to a major effort by a Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) research center to create an AIDS vaccine.

Professor William Hancock, holder of the Bradstreet Chair in Bioanalytical Chemistry, and Northeastern University’s Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis, will collaborate with the newly created Phillip T. and Susan M. Ragon Institute and its director, Dr. Bruce Walker, in the quest for greater knowledge of the epidemic disease and possible ways of ending its devastation.

The Ragon Institute, which draws on the resources of MGH, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the genetics research-focused Broad Institute, was established to take on major global health challenges related to infectious disease research.

Hancock will bring to that mission his expertise in the relationship between disease and body sugars (glycoproteins). The Barnett Institute, of which Hancock is a part, offers its sophisticated, patented screening technology, which was used, for example, in the Human Genome Project.

Evidence gathered in the effort to develop an AIDS vaccine has shown patients to have abnormalities related to their glycoproteins, Hancock says, noting that Northeastern’s work to characterize these changes could be helpful, ultimately, in developing a new vaccine that takes advantage of the altered sugars of affected individuals.

Using analytical techniques developed at the Barnett Institute, Hancock will study blood samples of patients at varying stages of AIDS, supplied to him from the Ragon Institute.

“We’ll be able to measure the structure of the protein sugars in small clinical samples, which has not been possible in the past,” said Hancock. “The Barnett Institute offers state-of-the-art analytical technology that can carry out these difficult measurements in small blood or tissue samples.”

The research should lead to a better understanding not only of AIDS, but also of what happens in the body during the early stages of many other diseases—specifically the role played by sugars attached to proteins. Developing such an understanding may help scientists come up with better early treatments, explains Hancock.

“There are a lot of good labs in Boston, but Dr. Walker was interested in our analytical expertise in the glycan [sugar] area,” Hancock says. “Barnett is a world-leading institute in analytical sciences, and the Ragon effort plays to the strength of the institute, which Northeastern has nurtured for many years.”

Calling it an exciting collaboration, Hancock explains, “Most universities have not made the type of investment in analytical sciences that Northeastern University has; it’s a real strength, making strong collaborations with industry possible.”

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