By studying the behavior of pro­tein sugars in blood sam­ples taken from AIDS patients, a North­eastern chem­istry and chem­ical biology pro­fessor hopes to con­tribute to a major effort by a Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­eral Hos­pital (MGH) research center to create an AIDS vaccine.

Pro­fessor William Han­cock, holder of the Brad­street Chair in Bio­an­a­lyt­ical Chem­istry, and North­eastern University’s Bar­nett Insti­tute of Chem­ical and Bio­log­ical Analysis, will col­lab­o­rate with the newly cre­ated Phillip T. and Susan M. Ragon Insti­tute and its director, Dr. Bruce Walker, in the quest for greater knowl­edge of the epi­demic dis­ease and pos­sible ways of ending its devastation.

The Ragon Insti­tute, which draws on the resources of MGH, the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, and the genetics research-​​focused Broad Insti­tute, was estab­lished to take on major global health chal­lenges related to infec­tious dis­ease research.

Han­cock will bring to that mis­sion his exper­tise in the rela­tion­ship between dis­ease and body sugars (gly­co­pro­teins). The Bar­nett Insti­tute, of which Han­cock is a part, offers its sophis­ti­cated, patented screening tech­nology, which was used, for example, in the Human Genome Project.

Evi­dence gath­ered in the effort to develop an AIDS vac­cine has shown patients to have abnor­mal­i­ties related to their gly­co­pro­teins, Han­cock says, noting that Northeastern’s work to char­ac­terize these changes could be helpful, ulti­mately, in devel­oping a new vac­cine that takes advan­tage of the altered sugars of affected individuals.

Using ana­lyt­ical tech­niques devel­oped at the Bar­nett Insti­tute, Han­cock will study blood sam­ples of patients at varying stages of AIDS, sup­plied to him from the Ragon Institute.

We’ll be able to mea­sure the struc­ture of the pro­tein sugars in small clin­ical sam­ples, which has not been pos­sible in the past,” said Han­cock. “The Bar­nett Insti­tute offers state-​​of-​​the-​​art ana­lyt­ical tech­nology that can carry out these dif­fi­cult mea­sure­ments in small blood or tissue samples.”

The research should lead to a better under­standing not only of AIDS, but also of what hap­pens in the body during the early stages of many other diseases—specifically the role played by sugars attached to pro­teins. Devel­oping such an under­standing may help sci­en­tists come up with better early treat­ments, explains Hancock.

There are a lot of good labs in Boston, but Dr. Walker was inter­ested in our ana­lyt­ical exper­tise in the glycan [sugar] area,” Han­cock says. “Bar­nett is a world-​​leading insti­tute in ana­lyt­ical sci­ences, and the Ragon effort plays to the strength of the insti­tute, which North­eastern has nur­tured for many years.”

Calling it an exciting col­lab­o­ra­tion, Han­cock explains, “Most uni­ver­si­ties have not made the type of invest­ment in ana­lyt­ical sci­ences that North­eastern Uni­ver­sity has; it’s a real strength, making strong col­lab­o­ra­tions with industry possible.”