AIDS vaccine offers hope in early trial

The near 40-year quest for an AIDS vaccine received a hopeful boost on Saturday when scientists announced that a trial drug triggered an immune response in humans and shielded monkeys from infection.

Shown to be safe in humans, the candidate vaccine has now advanced to the next phase of the pre-approval trial process, and will be tested in 2,600 women in southern Africa to see whether it prevents HIV infection.

While the results so far have been encouraging, the research team and outside experts warn there are no guarantees it will actually work in the next trial phase dubbed HVTN705 or “Imbokodo” — the isiZulu word for “rock”.

“Although these data are promising, we need to remain cautious,” Dan Barouch, lead researcher and a Professor at Harvard Medical School, said. Just because it protected two-thirds of monkeys in a lab trial does not mean the drug will protect humans,” and thus we need to await the results of the… study before we know whether or not this vaccine will protect humans against HIV infection,” he said.

The results of the Imbokodo trial are expected in 2021/22.

“This is only the fifth HIV vaccine concept that will be tested for efficacy in humans in the 35-plus year history of the global HIV epidemic,” added Professor Barouch.

Only one so far, RV144, yielded some protection. RV144 was reported in 2009 to reduce the risk of HIV infection among 16,000 Thai volunteers by 31.2% — deemed insufficient for the drug to be pursued.

For the latest study, published in
The Lancet
medical journal, Professor Barouch and a team tested the candidate drug on 393 HIV-free adults aged 18 to 50 in east Africa, South Africa, Thailand, and the U.S.

The participants were randomly given one of seven vaccine combinations or a placebo “dummy” alternative. They received four shots each over 48 weeks.

‘Mosaic’ combinations

The study used so-called “mosaic” vaccine combinations.

These combine pieces of different HIV virus types to elicit an immune response — when the body attacks intruder germs — against virus strains from different regions of the world.

The vaccine “induced robust (high levels of) immune responses in humans,” said Professor Barouch.

The tests also showed the vaccine was safe. Five participants reported side-effects such as stomach pain and diarrhoea, dizziness, or back pain.

In a separate study, the same vaccine offered complete protection from infection in two-thirds of 72 trial monkeys each given six injections with an HIV-like virus.

“I cannot emphasise how badly we need to have a vaccine… to get rid of HIV in the next generation altogether,” said Francois Venter of the University of the Witwatersrand Reproductive Health and HIV Institute in South Africa.

“We have been here before, with promising candidate vaccines that haven’t panned out,” he said.

“This one is novel in many ways so it is exciting, but we have a long way to go.”

Jean-Daniel Lelievre of France’s Vaccine Research Institute said the vaccine was likely not the “definitive” version, but may represent “a phenomenal advance.”

An estimated 37 million people live with HIV/AIDS, according to the World Health Organization.

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