Spanish researchers announced last week that they’ve identified a vaccine that could one day drastically reduce the impact of HIV on the human body. While this is undoubtedly a significant and exciting medical breakthrough with regard to both prevention and treatment of HIV, few articles have put it in a proper context. Since I’ve heard more than one person this week announce that a “cure for AIDS has been found”, it seemed necessary to outline a few key points: To begin with, there is still no cure for AIDS. So…whats this all about?
The new vaccine, known as MVA-B, is a variation on the Live Virus Vaccine once used to eradicate Small Pox. Scientists have managed to manipulate this virus to carry 4 HIV genes with the hope that an immune system would recognize the virus if an individual became infected.
“It is like showing a picture of the HIV so that it is able to recognise it if it sees it again in the future” explains Professor Mariano Esteban, head researcher on the project at the National Biotech Centre in Madrid.
In the study, this vaccine was given to 24 healthy patients to gauge how their immune system would respond. In this early study, roughly 90% of the HIV-free volunteers who were given the vaccine, developed an immune response against the virus. After one year the vaccination, 85% still show signs of this response.
How it works
MVA-B is a therapeutic vaccine. This means that, if it is refined to the point where it was totally effective, it would be administered to those already living with HIV. It would then control the virus in their bodies in much the same way modern antiretroviral treatments do, except people would only need a single injection- not a daily regimen of tablets. Such a vaccination programme, if rolled out globally, would have a tremendous impact on the lives of people living with HIV, and reduce greatly further spread.
How important is this?
HIV is an incredibly complex virus with many strains. As such, any insight that could help researchers better understand how it works, is significant. In this context, however, it is important to recognize that this breakthrough is the result of a Phase I trial on one specific strain of the virus.
The next step in the process is another Phase I test. This time, however, the vaccine will be injected in to HIV positive volunteers to test its therapeutic application. Before any large-scale production, this vaccine will still need to go through Phase II and Phase III tests, which would involve injecting vaccinated volunteers with the HIV virus on a larger scale. These trials will likely take several years.
How long until an effective vaccine is available for HIV?
No one knows. As scientists will continue to make discoveries we will move closer to an eventual vaccine for HIV. Until this point, the most effective method of reducing HIV is by minimizing the spread of the epidemic. This is done by learning about HIV and AIDS, protecting yourself from HIV and other STIs by wearing a condom, and by encouraging your partner(s), friends, and communities to do the same.
Here are a few other posts on HIV research and advances: