A vaccine against HIV – the deadly virus responsible for 35,000 deaths worldwide – looked a bit more viable this week as researchers from Canada hailed an early trial of a vaccine for the infection a major success. Researchers at the University of Western Ontario in a Phase I study of the HIV-1 vaccine (SAV001-H), the first stage of human testing of a drug, found the vaccine produced no adverse effects in all patients.
This particular vaccine, developed by Dr. Chil-Yong Kang and his team at the University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry with the support of Sumagen Canada, is especially unique because it is the first and only preventative HIV vaccine based on a genetically modified killed whole virus – a similar technique used for vaccines for polio, influenza and rabies, among others.
"We infect the cells with a genetically modified HIV-1", Kang said in an interview with Ontario Business Report.
"The infected cells produce lots of virus, which we collect, purify and inactivate so that the vaccine won’t cause AIDS in recipients, but will trigger immune responses."
One of the key benefits of genetically engineering the vaccine is it is safer and can be produced in large quantities, which will be a vital component if the vaccine is to have future success. From March 2012 to August 2013 the vaccine was tested for safety in humans; a major hurdle the vaccine needed to overcome in order to move on to more advanced testing phases.
The vaccine and a placebo was given to HIV-infected, asymptomatic men and women and after monitoring the patients for 52 weeks no adverse side effects were reported. However, the vaccine is still in very early stages of development. It will now have to go on to Phase II testing, which will measure the actual effectiveness of the vaccine in prompting immune response, and then further Phase III testing, before it can ever become a viable treatment prospect.
Nevertheless, it is so far proving more successful than other vaccines. Since HIV was characterised in 1983 there have been numerous trials through pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions around the world to develop vaccines; but to date there is not a successful on produced. However, in the last decade scientists’ clinical work has resulted in some major breakthroughs in the treatment of HIV.
In March French researchers said that if caught early and treated aggressively, antiviral drugs could functionally cure about one in 10 infected. The claim was made after the researchers analysed 14 people who stopped therapy, but have since shown no signs of the virus resurging.
Later, in July, researchers announced at the International Aids Society Conference that two HIV-positive patients had been taken off their anti-retroviral drugs after bone marrow transplants seemed to clear the virus from their bodies, although they stressed it was too early to say if they were cured.
These are all early but hugely encouraging studies that show the fight against HIV is making progress. Could we see the spread of HIV be diminished by the next generation? It may be a possibility.
In April the Department of Health launched a campaign along with the Terrence Higgins Trust called "It Starts With Me" to get people tested for HIV earlier. They said due to the effectives of modern drug treatment, which reduces the virus in the body to undetectable levels, it is much harder to pass it on. But testing in the first instance is the key to ending the spread of the virus.
At its launch Sir Nick Partridge, chief executive at the Terrence Higgins Trust, also involved in the campaign, told the BBC: "While a cure or vaccine for HIV remains stubbornly out of reach, what many people don't realise is that medical advances mean it is now within our grasp to stop the virus in its tracks."