Faculty Profile: Jerome Zack, Ph.D.

As Jerome Zack, PhD, was finishing his doctorate, he shared the growing dread of many physicians and scientists that a mysterious and previously obscure disease was becoming a deadly epidemic. Realizing that his budding career as a virology researcher qualified him to join the fight, and knowing he would be spending countless hours in the laboratory, Dr. Zack wanted his efforts to be directed toward an important health issue. Thus, his passion quickly became research to develop a cure for HIV/AIDS.

These many years later, Dr. Zack carries on that fight as a key member of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center, professor of medicine and microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, and a member of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Through his innovative research, Dr. Zack has sought to develop treatments for HIV/AIDS by understanding its cellular source and causes. With the knowledge developed over his lengthy career, he hopes to use stem cell technology to engineer a patient’s immune system to respond to and combat the disease.

“I started using stem cells to study HIV,” Dr. Zack says, “because we found that HIV perturbs the function of hematopoietic or blood-producing stem cells, which can become many different types of blood cells. This includes T cells, which are central to the function of the immune system.” Dr. Zack expanded his research to include human embryonic stem cells (hESC) and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, either of which can become any cell in the body, to study the development of HIV, and to eventually use stem cells therapeutically to treat HIV disease.

Dr. Zack and his colleagues are driving translation of their discoveries directly to patient treatments as quickly as possible. He emphasizes that creating a sound scientific foundation for a potential treatment is very important. “You can’t move to the clinic without it,” Zack says, “my main concern is translating our stem cell advancements into cures for disease, so I work closely with clinicians to bring our laboratory work to a patient setting.”

HIV and Immune System Response

In HIV/AIDs, the immune system fails and does not attack the invading virus. Dr. Zack is trying to fix that failure with genetically modified stem cells that will enable the immune system to fight the virus. To accomplish this, he is working to discover genes that are important to promoting an immune response against HIV. He then plans to transfer those genes into blood stem cells taken from HIV patients’ bone marrow, the body’s blood cell factory, thus genetically modifying the blood stem cells. When the modified stem cells are transplanted back to the patient, they can become T cells that contain the new genes. These new T cells are able to identify HIV and attack it.


Besides conducting his significant research, Dr. Zack has leadership roles including director of the UCLA Center for AIDS Research and co-director of the UCLA AIDS Institute. The programs support seed grants and core services, foster scientific collaborations, and facilitate AIDS research at UCLA. He is also director of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Bank, a core resource of hESC and iPS cells available to qualified UCLA investigators.

His leadership roles extend Dr. Zack’s passion for finding a cure for HIV/AIDS and other diseases to the next generation of UCLA scientists. As a professor, he teaches undergraduate immunology and gives many lectures on AIDS at UCLA and other institutions throughout the year. He mentors graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and several junior faculty as well.

A View into the Future

“We use hESC and iPS cells in our HIV research,” Dr. Zack says, “because they can both become blood stem cells, and there are major advantages and disadvantages with either type. At this point neither is a clear winner over the other. Once the best method of achieving our treatment goal is clarified and perfected, I think the approach we are using could be called a genetic vaccination against HIV.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Dr. Zack and his colleagues are using HIV as a model to study this treatment technology. They are gaining knowledge about immune system response that they can use to develop genetic vaccines for other infectious diseases such as malaria or some types of cancer. Dr. Zack stands as a shining example of the scientists at the Broad Stem Cell Research Center who are working tirelessly to improve the human condition through stem cell science.