AIDS & Other Infectious Diseases

Infectious diseases are caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that can be spread from person to person.

These diseases are the world’s most important health problem, as they kill more people worldwide than any other single cause. In the US alone, the cost of treating infectious diseases is $120 billion each year. Diseases that were once thought under control are re-emerging because of global travelAIDS & Other Infectious Diseases and migration patterns, and new disease-causing agents, or pathogens, are emerging all the time. In the last 35 years, there have been at least 30 new pathogens described, including HIV.

Our immune system is fine-tuned to track down and efficiently remove infectious pathogens, and usually this process is so efficient that we may be unaware we have ever been infected. It is only when we encounter a pathogen that can avoid detection, or when our existing immunity fails, that we experience disease. The consequences of these failures can be devastating. Viruses can be particularly difficult to track down, as they hide in cells away from drugs and antibodies in the bloodstream. Bacteria can change, or mutate, very quickly and become resistant to antibiotics, leaving us with few options to treat bacterial diseases. Parasites can also remain hidden in the cells and organs of our bodies where they quietly wreak havoc until the damage becomes extensive, and by then it may be too late for medication to be effective.

The Institute’s scientists are working on new and exciting ways to prevent and treat diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites. They are finding ways to harness the strengths of our immune systems to prevent pathogens taking hold, and to fight them more effectively if they do escape our defenses.

Principal Investigators are working on the following challenges in the area of AIDS & Infectious Diseases:

  • Discovering a new way to make an HIV vaccine that teaches the immune system to ignore the decoys laid down by HIV.
  • Understanding how viruses can remain dormant for decades and do no harm, until they are suddenly triggered to ramp up an attack.
  • Understanding the immune response to smallpox vaccines, to aid in the design of better vaccines.
  • Understanding how viral and secondary bacterial infections interact to escalate from manageable infections to life-threatening illnesses.
  • Understanding how to generate a protective immune response to the Leishmania parasite, to aid in developing new vaccines.


Influenza virus infections are associated with considerable morbidity and mortality worldwide. In the US alone, despite the availability of vaccines and antiviral drugs, influenza causes approximately 200,000 serious infections that require hospitalization, and 36,000 deaths each year.

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Smallpox Vaccine

Smallpox is a highly contagious and sometimes fatal disease caused by the variola virus. Thanks to a successful worldwide vaccination program, the last naturally occurring infection was in 1977 and in 1980, smallpox was declared eradicated.

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Leishmaniasis is endemic worldwide with more than 2 million new cases reported every year. The disease is caused by a protozoan parasite of the genus Leishmania, and is transmitted by the bite of sand flies.

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