In 1969, Dr. Zolla-Pazner established her own laboratory at the New York Veterans Affairs Hospital, part of the NYU School of Medicine in Manhattan. As an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at NYU, she continued her work on mouse plasmacytomas, and, in 1977, she also became the director of the VA Clinical Immunology Laboratory, the only lab in the NYU/VA complex to assess the function of immune responses in human patients.
As noted, Dr. Zolla-Pazner was one of the pioneer scientists to describe the immunologic abnormalities in the disease that came to be known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Her research focused on the abnormalities of B lymphocytes in patients with AIDS and with early forms of HIV infection. Eventually, Dr. Zolla-Pazner’s interests settled on studies of the “variable regions” of the gp120 envelope glycoprotein of HIV. Her lab was the first to describe how antibodies to the V2 and V3 regions of gp120 could recognize these regions of amino acid sequences in viruses from all over the globe, despite their extreme variability. Her studies indicated that the V2 and V3 regions of diverse strains of HIV share common immunologic structures.
Dr. Zolla-Pazner’s structural studies of the V3 loop of the HIV envelope illustrated their conserved structure despite their amino acid variability. Additionally, her structural studies of V2 showed that the V1V2 region of the HIV envelope also has a conserved structure. These immunologic and structural studies demonstrated how V2 and V3 from diverse viruses share antigenic similarities, contributing to our understanding of how V3 helps the virus infect cells through cell surface coreceptors—the chemokine receptors CXCR4 and CCR5—and how the V1V2 region forms the apex of the virus’s envelope trimer and assists in protecting vulnerable areas of the envelope from antibodies.