June 2, 2015
What if physicians were able to administer a vaccine that would ensure you could never contract HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) in the first place? Brandon DeKosky, Hertz Fellow, is pursuing the answer to this question. Once considered a death sentence, HIV can now be clinically managed in large part due to improvements in pharmaceutical drugs that effectively treat the virus’ symptoms and thwart its spread. As a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center, DeKosky, 28, is working on developing an HIV vaccine by analyzing the immune responses in infected patients that are successful at neutralizing the virus.
“A vaccine is about showing your immune system one particular type of protein so that when a pathogen comes along which has that protein it can be cleared, often using antibody molecules,” DeKosky said. “We’re learning about how different classes of antibodies arise and we’re trying to design a vaccine that will elicit the right antibodies from the start, so that one day you could actually gain immunity from an HIV vaccine.”
While current drugs are excellent at containing HIV once a person has it, there aren’t any means of prevention currently. A vaccine, DeKosky said, would be the best and most cost-effective way of fighting the disease, and with advances in recent years toward that aim, there is optimism that an HIV vaccine will be found. Although HIV, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza are main research foci right now, the technologies could one day also be applied to a variety of different diseases, from Ebola to cancer.
Photo credit: Monica Wright
Born and raised near Kansas City, DeKosky started his academic career in chemical engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, envisioning running a chemical processing plant. But after a 2009 internship studying vaccine process development at Merck & Co., he fell in love with molecular biotechnology, realizing there were so many key unanswered questions with regard to human health.
While at the University of Kansas, DeKosky stumbled onto a Hertz Foundation flyer hanging on a bulletin board, and thinking he had nothing to lose, he applied. He was awarded a Hertz Fellowship in 2010.
“I was just as surprised as anyone,” DeKosky said. “Having Hertz Fellowship funding allowed me to work with (advisor George Georgiou) to design a project that would be meaningful and was not necessarily what we already had funding for; and it also enabled me to work seamlessly with other research groups.”
As a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin, one of DeKosky’s main goals was to find a way to purify genetic information, analyzing millions of single cells at a time and applying the knowledge to antibodies. This research would address a major problem in biotechnology and immunology.
“You’ve got all of these cells in your immune system that are cutting and pasting your DNA, and if you can find the ones that do it just right, they’ll get recruited and called up to fight the pathogen,” he explained. “We’ve known that this was happening for a long time, but we didn’t have the tools to be able to look at the whole picture.”
DeKosky completed his doctorate in May 2015 and moved to the nation’s capital, where he’s excited to develop the next generation of vaccine technologies. His postdoc in the research group of Dr. John Mascola at the NIH Vaccine Research Center will take two years to complete, after which he will start his own lab as a research and teaching professor at the University of Kansas. In this role, he hopes to train other scientists and work with young people to help them develop their research skills and explore scientific innovation.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of the ideas that end up becoming drugs start from a university lab,” DeKosky said. “Being in an academic center you have the creativity and flexibility to do the research you’re interested in, you’re surrounded by other researchers who are interested in doing the same thing, and you’re training the next generation of scientists, which is exciting.”