On the Front Lines of the Fight against HIV & Heroin Addiction

Albright College senior Jordan Zehr spent his summer working on the development of a combined HIV-heroin vaccine at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

By Hilary Bentman

Jordan Zehr ’17 spent his summer trying to combat two significant global health issues – HIV and heroin addiction.

The Albright College biology major, who is focusing on biotechnology, interned with Carl Alving, M.D., in the U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Zehr worked alongside scientists at the Silver Spring, Md., facility to help synthesize a combined HIV and anti-heroin vaccine.


Jordan Zehr '17, at work in Albright's labs.

“It was humbling and exciting to be tackling such monumental health issues,” says Zehr, of Dryden, N.Y. “It was impressive to me that the scientists that I worked next to were so excited by this, never once backing down from the challenge.”

The MHRP works “to protect the U.S. Military from HIV and improve global health by conducting research to develop an HIV vaccine, reduce new infections and find a cure.”

The MHRP is pursuing a number of vaccine strategies, including a combination HIV-heroin vaccine to address these oft-entwined epidemics. As intravenous drug users, heroin addicts have an increased risk of contracting the virus.

The vaccine under development would produce antibodies that attach to heroin when it’s in the bloodstream, thereby “preventing the drug from crossing the blood-brain barrier, and blocking the euphoria and addictive effects,” according to MHRP’s website.

The vaccine is a work in progress.

Zehr spent most of his time at MHRP doing laboratory work, helping to synthesize the vaccine to be administered to mice, and purifying peptides. Zehr did not work with the live HIV virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an estimated 1.2 million Americans living with HIV as of the end of 2012. In 2014, the estimated number of new diagnoses in the United States was 44,000, a 19-percent decline since 2005.

But worldwide, the estimates for people living with HIV/AIDS nears 37 million, of which about 26 million live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. Globally, about 2.1 million people were newly infected in 2015.

“In the United States we may have a decent grasp on HIV. But when the military is in different parts of the world – Africa, Thailand – those areas are at risk,” says Zehr.

Zehr’s experience with MHRP marked the first type of laboratory work he has conducted at a research facility. The opportunity presented itself after Zehr presented at an American Chemical Society meeting in San Diego last spring.

Zehr was attending the meeting to present on organic chemistry research he had conducted with Albright associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry Chris Hamann, Ph.D. Though Zehr is a biology major, he began working with Hamann on the development of a database for secondary metabolites.

The work turned into an Albright Creative Research Experience project, and Zehr ended up presenting at several conferences, including the ACS meeting. It was there that he caught the attention of a researcher at MHRP, who asked Zehr to join the team for the summer.

“It’s strange how it all turned out,” says Zehr. “I never anticipated I’d be doing organic chemistry research and it led me down this path. You don’t know what doors are going to open.”

Hamann is pleased yet not too surprised by the turn of events.

“There really are elements of serendipity here, but Jordan’s diligent effort was a key element of his success,” he says. “To paraphrase (French microbiologist Louis) Pasteur, chance favors the prepared. And I think Albright provides its students with the preparation that favors their chances.”

Zehr says his summer internship has helped him grow. “I watched myself develop as a scientist, to go toe-to-toe with some of the brightest young minds across the country.”

Adam Hersperger, Ph.D., agrees. The assistant biology professor has taught Zehr in several classes and was his internship supervisor. Hersperger said the internship provided his student with experiences ranging from mundane laboratory work to complex, multi-step scientific experiments.

“These internships are an excellent way for students like Jordan to get a true sense of what scientific research is like on a day-to-day basis,” says Hersperger.

Zehr is interested in pursuing a career in genetics and bioinformatics and knows graduate school is in his future. His goal is to run his own genetic analysis lab and work in the field of personalized medicine.

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