Human trials for an experimental new HIV vaccine, the first to use mRNA after the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, are set to start next month.
Devised by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and Scripps Research, this new approach will be tested using an mRNA vaccine by Moderna. Similar in concept to the biotech company’s COVID-19 vaccine, the mRNA will be taken in by cells that produce specific (but harmless) proteins to stimulate the right immune response. This will train the immune system to fight the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
According to the US National Institutes of Health Clinical Trial registry, the trial is set to start September 19 and will last until spring 2023. It will have 56 participants taking two slightly different mRNA vaccines. The participants have to be adults between 18 and 50 and be HIV-1 negative.
Back in April, results from IAVI and Scripps' proof of principle concept for an HIV vaccine showed that there are ways to elicit a particular response from the human body. It was able to stimulate production of the immune cells needed to kickstart the process of generating antibodies against the virus. These are specialized blood proteins that can attach themselves to the spikes on the surface of HIV, neutralizing the virus before it can infect cells. This approach would work on fast-mutating different strains of HIV.
HIV is responsible for the deadliest pandemic of the last 50 years and there is currently no permanent cure or vaccine available. The success of this new approach, following the success of the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 mRNA vaccines – the first to have been used in humans – could be revolutionary in stopping the HIV pandemic. It could also be a starting point to create vaccines that can prime the body to fight off different strains of influenza, and even diseases such as dengue fever, Zika, hepatitis, and even malaria.
While a vaccine is still in the experimental stages, there are current drugs that are extremely efficient at preventing people from becoming infected with HIV, such as PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), new versions of which could be even easier to administer. This new Moderna vaccine is also not the only HIV vaccine going to trial at the moment.
People living with HIV and on antiretroviral drugs live healthy lives and once their viral load becomes undetectable it is impossible for them to pass the virus on. This is encapsulated by the phrase undetectable equals untransmittable, U=U.
People living with HIV continue to experience stigma, which may prevent access to information about the disease and life-saving drugs due to political, religious, and social-economic conditions. More than 35 million people around the world live with HIV. A vaccine and a cure would be revolutionary, but equal access to education and medicines globally would change (and save) lives today.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the start date to September 19 after the trial information was updated and to clarify what the earlier IAVI trial achieved.