It’s still early days, but researchers are hopeful that a new approach could pave the way for a working HIV vaccine in humans that could save millions of lives.
We’ve heard a lot about vaccines in the ongoing pandemic, and we’ve seen important breakthroughs in a relatively short amount of time, and this renewed interest in vaccines doesn’t only apply to COVID-19. A new study carried out in Japan reported a new vaccine that kills HIV in crab-eating macaques, a type of test monkey often used for medical tests.
The vaccine uses an adjuvant — an ingredient that helps to create a stronger immune response. Adjuvants help the body produce an immune response strong enough to protect the person from the disease. Adjuvants have been used before in some vaccines; for instance, the anthrax, chickenpox, and some influenza vaccines use an adjuvant.
In this case, the researchers focused on a bacterium that secretes a substance that strengthens the immune response. They administered the vaccine to the macaques and observed that it protected all of them against HIV, up to the point where tests couldn’t find any traces of the HIV vaccine. The vaccinated macaques were then given a stronger virus that always kills the victim, but the virus disappeared in 6 out of the 7 subjects.
Blood and lymph nodes were extracted from the surviving macaques and injected into healthy monkeys and also provided immunity.
The results are promising, but getting a vaccine to work on monkeys is one thing, and getting it to work on humans is another. Researchers are working on developing clinical testing on humans, but this won’t happen overnight — the plan is to have results within five years, researchers say..
Although HIV incidence has declined in recent years, it remains a major problem, especially in some regions of Africa. It’s estimated that HIV kills around 1 million people every year and it still remains a global healthcare crisis. Since 1981, HIV has killed over 35 million people.
While treatments for HIV do exist, and especially when applied early, they can keep the virus in check, they don’t actually destroy the virus — and treatment can be quite expensive.
Having access to a vaccine (especially a cheap vaccine that could be deployed cost-effectively) could be a game-changer and put a big dent in the worldwide HIV outbreak. This isn’t the first attempt of developing an HIV vaccine — far from it. Earlier this year, a Phase I trial showed promise, but several HIV vaccines have reached Phase III, only to show insufficient results. Several notable trials are currently underway.
HIV has proven to be a resilient and adaptable virus, which is why it’s so important to develop a working vaccine against it as quickly as possible. Whether or not this new approach will work in humans remains to be seen.