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Michigan's Nabel To Head VRC

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Dr. Gary Nabel

That new Vaccine Research Center director Dr. Gary Nabel's name is spelled almost like Nobel only seems to magnify the hope placed in him and the center being built for a staff of almost 100 workers he will name following his arrival from the University of Michigan on Apr. 11. It took nearly 2 years to find a VRC director, and NIH authorities are confident they found a good one.


"Gary Nabel is a superb scientist who has excelled at the frontiers of virology, immunology, gene therapy and molecular biology," said NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus. "As a result of his experiences with clinical and laboratory research in academia and extensive interactions with industrial partners, he is remarkably well prepared to lead the complex, multidisciplinary and collaborative activities that will be required to develop an effective HIV vaccine. His recent work — on novel strategies for gene therapy for AIDS and for vaccines against cancer and Ebola virus — illustrates the imagination and drive that he will bring to the NIH Vaccine Research Center."

The center's initial focus is to develop candidate vaccines against HIV, though it is anticipated that other diseases such as malaria will also be targeted.

Nabel, who officially joins NIH on Apr. 11, comes from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the Henry Sewall professor of internal medicine and professor of biological chemistry; he also is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Initial plans call for him to occupy temporary space in Bldg. 9, then move eventually to the A wing of Bldg. 10 until the VRC, now under construction, is complete.

The VRC receives joint funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Cancer Institute and is spearheaded by those two institutes and the Office of AIDS Research.

In May 1997, President Clinton set a goal to develop an AIDS vaccine within 10 years. NIH responded by creating the VRC, a state-of-the-art biomedical research laboratory that will facilitate the development of vaccines. The center will stimulate multidisciplinary research, from basic and clinical immunology and virology through vaccine design and production. The VRC will integrate modern immunological science with a detailed understanding of how HIV disease develops, the creation of novel vaccine vectors and immunogens and new vaccination strategies.

"I'm honored and excited by the opportunity to contribute to vaccine development through this unique center at the NIH," Nabel said. "The development of an AIDS vaccine remains a formidable challenge and an urgent need, and the VRC hopes to drive the development of effective vaccines with our partners in academia, industry and the public."

Currently, the VRC is a center without walls, involving a core group of NIH scientists with expertise in immunology, virology and vaccine development. Construction of a 5-story facility adjacent to Bldg. 37, which began in August 1998, is expected to be completed by mid-2000. When the VRC is fully operational, Nabel will oversee about 100 scientists and support staff.

A close look inside the "footprint" of the new Vaccine Research Center near Bldg. 37 shows workmen busy on the foundation of what will eventually be a 5-story structure. Completion is set for mid-2000 on the fast-track project that will eventually house new VRC director Dr. Gary Nabel and a staff of about 100 employees.

His interest in HIV gene therapy, supported by NIAID for the past 10 years, began with basic research and progressed to clinical studies. He and his colleagues developed Rev M10, a competitive inhibitor of the HIV Rev protein, which is required for HIV replication. The Rev M10 gene, when introduced into cells, makes a protein that prevents authentic REV from binding to the cell, thereby short-circuiting HIV's replication cycle. In 1996, they reported on the first HIV gene therapy trial, in which three HIV-infected patients had been infused with their own CD4+ T cells that had been modified with the Rev M10 antiviral gene. The scientists found that CD4+ T cells containing Rev M10 survive longer in the blood than unmodified cells, with no adverse side effects. His group continues work to improve this novel therapeutic strategy.

Nabel is also one of the first researchers to develop a DNA-based therapeutic vaccine against cancer. He and his colleagues have used direct gene transfer to introduce therapeutic proteins into patients with melanoma. Their clinical studies were among the first to demonstrate the feasibility and safety of this approach. NCI has supported this research for 8 years.

He also has applied his gene therapy expertise to the deadly Ebola virus. In late 1997, Nabel led a group of researchers who reported on their successful experiments in guinea pigs showing that a DNA-based vaccine could generate protective immune responses to Ebola virus.

Nabel graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1975. He then entered the university's M.D.-Ph.D. program, completing his Ph.D. in 1980 and his M.D. 2 years later. He continued to divide his time between research and medical training. From 1980 to 1984, he worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in the laboratory of immunopatho-logy at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Meanwhile, after completing his medical degree, he pursued an internship and residency training in internal medicine at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. In 1985, he joined the laboratory of Dr. David Baltimore at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, working there for 2 years as a research associate. Baltimore, now president of California Institute of Technology, chairs the NIH AIDS vaccine research committee.

In 1987, Nabel became an assistant professor of internal medicine and assistant professor of biological chemistry at the University of Michigan. He also was named an assistant investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute there.

Nabel has served on several NIH advisory committees, including the NIAID AIDS research advisory committee, which he chaired from 1996-1997.

Last year, he was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to his faculty positions, Nabel has been director of the Center for Gene Therapy at the University of Michigan Medical Center since 1997, and codirector of the University of Michigan Center for Molecular Medicine since 1994. He currently is associate editor of the Journal of Virology and the Journal of Clinical Investigation and serves on the editorial boards of several other journals.

His wife, Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, professor of internal medicine and physiology at Michigan, will join NHLBI as director of clinical branches.

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