BARCELONA: After more than 30 years into the HIV/AIDS pandemic, a vaccine remains elusive—and much needed. Globally, about 35 million people are living with HIV, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS or UNAIDS. In the United States, about 1.1 million people are HIV positive, and nearly 50,000 people contract the virus each year—with African Americans and Latinos disproportionately affected. Men who have sex with men—especially those of color—have among the highest infection rates across the globe.
A possible "breakthrough" in the decades-long quest for a vaccine that could prevent people from acquiring HIV created the most buzz at the 13th AIDS Vaccine Conference in Barcelona. More on the nuances of the "science" behind the vaccine strategy in my report for POZ, "Possible 'Breakthrough' in Vaccine Research." It's the second article in my international media fellowship to AIDS Vaccine 2013 Barcelona.
AIDS Vaccine 2013 was the first public presentation of the research by Oregon Health and Science University's Louis J. Picker, MD, originally published in the journal Nature. Picker's study demonstrated that vaccinated monkeys can clear simian immunodeficiency virus—SIV, the monkey equivalent of HIV—from their bodies. Picker's research team used an aggressive strain of the simian virus, called SIVmac239 and described as "up to 100 times more deadly than HIV." The vaccine was effective in nine of the 16 monkeys in the study.
Picker's research team fused SIV genes to the cytomegalovirus (CMV), which is from the herpes virus family. The immune system responded to the infection by doing what it normally does—releasing new white blood cells called CD8 "hunter-killer cells" that kill cells infected with SIV. These CD8s are normally primed to target the virus, but in this case, according to The New York Times, they operated in "an atypical state of mid-activation" and persisted in tissue while "eliminating their targets quietly without triggering inflammation or even a mild fever."
This new vaccine strategy could be a "breakthrough" because HIV is "particularly Machiavellian," said Picker. The virus constantly mutates and hides from the body's immune system—which is why vaccine research has so far proved largely ineffective.
Read the full report HERE.
AIDS Vaccine 2013 Barcelona has been described as the "world's leading scientific meeting on HIV vaccine research" and was attended by more than 1,000 leading researchers, funders and policy makers.
AIDS Vaccine 2013 Barcelona and the international media fellowship were sponsored the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise—the international consortium that has pooled resources to "speed the development of a safe and effective HIV vaccine." The Enterprise includes the USA, Thailand and South African governments, the European Union, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNAIDS, World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention, GlaxoSmithKline, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Merck, Novartis, USAID, Sanofi Pasteur, the largest company in the world devoted to vaccine development.