The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the syndrome it causes, AIDS, has plagued the world since the pandemic broke in the early 1980s. Every year, 1st December marks world AIDS day. It is a day set aside to review the progress that has been made to fight against this deadly disease, and also to remind people to protect themselves from contracting the virus. Attempts to develop an effective vaccine has up till the last decade yielded no promising results.
The main reason for this is that, HIV is a very adaptable virus that rapidly evolves to produce new mutations, making it difficult to target with a vaccine that generates a specific set of antibodies. Just like the coronavirus, HIV uses protein spikes on its surface to attach to and enter host cells and infect them. In recent times, research has revealed that the virus has found a way to hide its outer layer glycoprotein with the same type of glycoproteins found in human cells, making it even more difficult to identify, differentiate and target.
Over the years, great progress has been made in the development of medicines that help manage the disease, and these medicines have improved the quality and life expectancy of infected persons.
New HIV vaccine candidates
The light at the end of the tunnel for an effective vaccine now seems a little closer because in September 2021, International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and Scripps Research, together with Moderna and other partners, announced the launch of the first phase of clinical trials that will assess the viability and robustness of two new HIV vaccine candidates mRNA 1644 and mRNA 1644v2. The trial will focus on determining if the two candidates are able to safely generate antibodies that have a broad target range in healthy adults.
A previous clinical trial involving 48 persons confirmed the possibility of producing a viable vaccine using the mRNA technology that was used to produce the COVID-19 vaccines.
In this new trial, 56 adults between the ages of 18 and 50 will be divided into four groups. One group will receive the mRNA vaccine 1644, the second will receive mRNA 1644v2-core antigen, the third group will receive both and the last group will be the control. The target for this vaccine development is to interrupt the binding of the virus to the CD4+ T cells. By using the mRNA platform, researchers hope to advance the process of developing a more effective vaccine, as previous attempts using different approaches have failed. The study will begin at the end of 2021 and end sometime in the second half of 2023.
Moderna Inc. has become a giant in the drug and vaccine sector after its success with the mRNA technology based COVID-19 vaccine. The company was established in 2010 and has been working on developing vaccines against several viruses that plaque the world today. “The company has developed vaccines for 10 different viruses that are in various stages of trials. These include three types of Covid-19 boosters that are already in trials, a seasonal flu vaccine that began its first human trials in July 2021, and now these two HIV vaccines,” said Stéphane Bancel, the CEO, in a recent interview. Bancel also says his company can also become a dominant vaccine maker, developing vaccines for emerging viruses such as the Nipah virus and the Zika virus.
Many scientists, including Rajesh T. Gandhi (MD), an infectious disease expert and chairman of the HIV Medicine Association (HMA), hope that the revolutionary mRNA technology will help accelerate vaccine development for many more diseases caused by viruses in the near future.
The new mRNA technology has given new hope to scientists who are working on developing a vaccine for HIV. Two new vaccine candidates have been developed using the technology, and clinical trials are underway to test the efficacy and stability of the preparations. The world may have a vaccine for HIV within the next 5 to 10 years.