Stopping the Spread of HIV

A graphic rendition of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which still infects nearly 7,000 people daily.

Image Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki

October 4, 2012 Sara Gavin

Researchers with the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are working on developing a vaccine for one of the deadliest viruses on the planet: HIV. The key to doing so may lie, of all places, in a poultry virus.

Scientists in AGNR’s Department of Veterinary Medicine recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to work on creating a human vaccine for HIV using a potent poultry virus called Newcastle Disease Virus (NDV). The team (pictured right) includes graduate student Sweety Samal, Department Chair Dr. Siba Samal, graduate student Vinoth Kumar and Research Assistant Professor Dr. Sunil Khattar. (Photo credit: Meg Dibley)

Newcastle disease is extremely contagious in many species of birds and economically devastating for the poultry industry worldwide but is not harmful to humans. Non-infectious strains of NDV have been used to vaccinate chickens for more than 60 years with a good track record. (Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg)

Now, using the Department of Veterinary Medicine’s state of the art bio-security lab, UMD researchers are able to genetically engineer a harmless strain of NDV and then modify it by inserting a gene from HIV. Their hope is that the process will result in a viable human vaccine for HIV – one that has remained elusive in the three decades since HIV was first identified as the virus that causes AIDS. While the rate of infections has declined globally over the last decade, roughly 7,000 people still contract HIV daily, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Dr. Samal says NDV is a smart and safe choice for this research because although humans don’t get sick from it, they aren’t inherently immune to it. Also, NDV infects birds similarly to the way HIV infects humans.

If Samal and his team are successful, it wouldn’t be the first time an animal virus led to the production of human vaccines. In fact, in the 1700s, the very first vaccine was developed to protect people against smallpox using the related but much milder cowpox virus. Smallpox was eventually eradicated due to widespread vaccinations.

UMD’s HIV researchers are collaborating with experts at University of Maryland Baltimore and Duke University to analyze their findings. Samal calls the results thus far “encouraging” and says his team hopes to receive additional funding so they can expand their work.

For more information, contact Sara Gavin at 301-405-9235 or