Alumnus awarded $5 million to develop combination heroin/HIV vaccine

A Penn State Hazleton alumnus won an award that will pay him $5 million to research his proposal to develop a vaccine against HIV that also prevents heroin addiction.

Dr. Gary R. Matyas '78, captured the 2012 Avant-Garde Award for Medications Development from the National Institute on Drug Abuse with his plan to attack twin scourges. 

"There is a strong correlation between heroin abuse and HIV infection, especially in developing countries," Matyas said of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes AIDS. "The possibility of creating a combination heroin/HIV vaccine provides an important opportunity to address both a unique treatment for heroin abuse as well as continuing the quest to develop an effective preventive HIV vaccine." 

Matyas works in Silver Spring, Md., at the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, where work already produced an anti-heroin component of the vaccine. 

In collaboration between the HIV Research Program and the National Institute, the researchers used haptens, a small molecule chemically similar to abused drugs like heroin. Haptens bind with protein carriers to induce an immune response against the addictive drugs. 

Now the anti-heroin hapten is ready for optimization and advanced, pre-clinical tests.

Through the Avant-Garde Award, Matyas will receive $1 million a year for five years to support the next phase of research and development. 

The Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine Inc. will administer the grant for the work, which will continue as a collaboration between the HIV Research Program and the National Institute.

Matyas, chief, Adjuvants and Formulation Section, Laboratory of Adjuvants and Antigen

Research at the HIV Research Program, spent his entire career researching diseases and developing vaccines. 

Originally from Mountain Grove, he began undergraduate studies at Penn State Hazleton before completing his bachelor of science degree in biophysics at University Park. 

He earned a doctoral degree in biological sciences while focusing on glycolipids and their changes in cancer in 1985 from Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.

Through 1988, he performed post-doctoral studies through the National Institute of Health's National Institute of Neurological, Communicative Disorders and Stroke.

Since starting at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, he has worked on liposomes and other vaccine formulations for various biological threats and infectious diseases. 

He is married to Marsha Lakes Matyas, the director of education programs at the American Physiological Society. She holds bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Purdue. 

Their son, Joseph, is a senior psychology major at Marshall University, Huntington, WV.