Moderna's Experimental mRNA HIV Vaccine Human Trial Starts This Week

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Pharmaceutical company Moderna, maker of one of the COVID-19 vaccines, is set to begin a Phase I clinical trial on a different mRNA vaccine this week, this time tackling HIV. The HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is responsible for the deadliest pandemic of the last 50 years and there is currently no permanent cure or vaccine available. 

According to the US National Institutes of Health Clinical Trial registry, the trial could start as early as today 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 a 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 the immune system to create broadly neutralizing antibodies or bnABs. 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 different strains of HIV.

Devised by International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and Scripps Research, this is now being 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 HIV.

The success of this approach 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.

 This Week in IFLScience

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