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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Ferguson Recognized for his Pioneering Work in Vaccine Development

Andrew Ferguson, assistant professor of Materials Science and Engineering and an affiliate with the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has received the Young Chemical Engineer of the Year Award-North America from the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE).

The award is in recognition of his impressive work on thermodynamic modeling for the development of HIV vaccines.

Chevron Oronite president and IChemE past president, Des King, presents Andrew Ferguson with the Young Chemical Engineer of the Year Award.
Chevron Oronite president and IChemE past president, Des King, presents Andrew Ferguson with the Young Chemical Engineer of the Year Award.

HIV/AIDS is responsible for the death of nearly 30 million individuals, with another 34 million infected. In the developed world, HIV can be managed by expensive antiretroviral drugs, but a vaccine represents perhaps the only hope for the impoverished sub-Saharan nations most severely afflicted. Despite three decades of effort, an effective vaccine is unavailable.

“An impediment to the development of effective vaccines is the absence of ‘fitness landscapes’ describing the ability of the virus to replicate and damage a host as a function of its DNA sequence,” Ferguson explained. “Such landscapes could be used to rationally design vaccines to induce potent immune responses against vulnerable regions of the virus, and possibly abort infection altogether.”

Together with his co-workers, Ferguson confronted this challenge by pioneering a novel method to translate clinical databases of HIV sequences into viral fitness landscapes based on statistical mechanical models typically used to describe the physics of magnets and fluids.

“In an application to the structural HIV polyprotein Gag, the model predictions are in remarkable agreement with in vitro fitness measurements and clinical data tracking viral evolution in human hosts,” Ferguson said.

Heartened by these validations, the researchers have used their models to computationally design a candidate HIV vaccine formulation predicted to have high efficacy that is currently being tested in mice. A research article describing the work was published in the highly regarded journal Immunity (Immunity 38 606-617 (2013)) and highlighted in two commentary articles.

The Ferguson Lab continues to refine and apply this methodology to Hepatitis C, another devastating virus for which no vaccine exists.

“It is our hope that the innovative application of thermodynamic models to computational immunology will enable a powerful in silico approach to accelerate trial and error experimental vaccine design, and ultimately help alleviate the global suffering caused by infectious disease,” said Ferguson.

Ferguson joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012. He received his Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering from Princeton University in 2010 and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at MIT before coming to Illinois.

The awards ceremony in San Francisco was one of a series of events organized by IChemE to celebrate excellence, innovation and achievement in the chemical and process industries across the world.

“The IChemE awards program has been running for 20 years, and this year attracted a record number of entries from all over the world,” said Andy Furlong, IChemE director of policy and communication. “North America is responsible for producing some of the world’s best chemical engineers and all of this year’s winners fully deserve their accolades.”

IChemE awards were also presented to a team from the Fraser Stoddart lab at Northwestern University and to Quentin Baker from BakerRisk.

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