In a profound new approach to HIV vaccination, US scientists have transformed the DNA in monkeys, which seems to give total protection against the virus.
Rather than the method being used to train the immune system to fight an infection like more traditional vaccines, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in California have altered the DNA of monkeys to give their HIV-fighting properties. The vaccine blocked every strain of HIV-1, HIV-2 and SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus), including the variants that are most difficult to block.
HIV/AIDS vaccine for humans
They aim to start human trials soon with independent experts expressing that it is worth ‘strong consideration’. As there was also protection against very high doses, equivalent to the amount of new virus that would be produced in a chronically infected patient, the researchers believe the approach may be useful in people who already have HIV which can develop into AIDS.
Lead researcher Professor Michael Farzan, when interviewed by the BBC said: “We are closer than any other approach to universal protection, but we still have hurdles, primarily with safety for giving it to many, many people.”
“We’re very proud of it and think it’s a big deal, but we are biased.” It is understandable that he is proud, when positive results have been produced from a project that is the culmination of more than a decade’s work on the biochemistry of how HIV enters cells.
The technique uses gene therapy to introduce a new section of DNA inside healthy muscle cells. That strip of DNA contains the instructions for manufacturing the tools to neutralise HIV, which are then constantly pumped into the bloodstream. Professor Farzan said: “The real strength of this thing is that it is more potent than any antibody.”
HIV vaccines have previously been notoriously difficult to engineer as the virus mutates so rapidly it is constantly shifting target.
This vaccine targets areas that HIV cannot change as easily.
Study first author Matthew Gardner explained how it prevents the virus from penetrating cells: “When antibodies try to mimic the receptor, they touch a lot of other parts of the viral envelope that HIV can change with ease. We’ve developed a direct mimic of the receptors without providing many avenues that the virus can use to escape, so we catch every virus thus far.”
Will the new HIV/AIDS vaccine be safe for humans?
There are safety implications to be considered before the vaccine can be used on humans. Vaccines usually only cause the immune system to respond if there is a threat, the gene therapy approach with this particular vaccine essentially turns cells into factories that constantly pump out the artificial HIV-killers and the long term effects of that are unknown.
The team are aiming, within the next year, to begin trials in patients who have HIV but are unable to take conventional drug therapies.
Dr Anthony Fauci, of the US National Institutes of Health said: “It would be advantageous to curb HIV infection without daily antiretroviral drugs because of their cost, the potential for negative side-effects from lifelong therapy and the difficulties some patients have adhering to daily drug regimes and tolerating certain drugs.”
He added: “This innovative research marks an important step toward our goal of putting HIV into sustained remission in chronically infected people.”
What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?
AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a disease caused by a virus called HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). The illness alters the immune system, making people much more vulnerable to infections and diseases, which worsen as the disease progresses.
HIV is found in the bodily fluids of an infected person and is passed from one person to another through sexual contact and from blood-to-blood (such as through contaminated hypodermic needles). Infected pregnant women can pass HIV to their babies during pregnancy, delivering the baby during childbirth, and through breast feeding.
People with HIV have what is called HIV infection, which as a result, means some will then develop AIDS. Further development of numerous opportunistic infections can ultimately lead to death. Treatments can slow the course of the disease, meaning some infected people can live a long and relatively healthy life.
The new gene therapy method of treatment that uses DNA transformation could be a revolutionary development if it is deemed safe to immunize or protect humans against HIV and AIDS.