The first doses of an experimental HIV vaccine using the same messenger RNA technology in the highly effective COVID-19 vaccines have been given to clinical trial participants.
“We are tremendously excited to be advancing this new direction in HIV vaccine design with Moderna’s mRNA platform,” International AIDS Vaccine Initiative president and CEO Mark Feinberg said in a statement last week. “The search for an HIV vaccine has been long and challenging, and having new tools in terms of immunogens and platforms could be the key to making rapid progress toward an urgently needed, effective HIV vaccine.”
The vaccine candidates were developed by researchers at Scripps Research in collaboration with International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and Moderna.
The study is underway at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC. Other collaborators include the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Emory University in Atlanta, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The phase I clinical trial will test whether a series of primer and booster shots can trigger the development of special cells that can produce antibodies to target various strains of HIV.
Researchers have spent more than 30 years and billions of dollars studying HIV vaccines, with little success.
Part of the problem is that the virus mutates rapidly, and many strains exist around the world, making it difficult to develop effective vaccines.
But medical experts hope the mRNA technology used in the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines will be a game changer in battling HIV.
The mRNA vaccine technology uses lipid nanoparticles, or fat bubbles, to deliver bits of genetic material that contain instructions for making proteins. The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, for example, deliver blueprints to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which the virus uses to enter cells.
When the vaccine is injected into a muscle, cells produce the protein, triggering an immune response.
The Moderna trial hopes to create various antibody combinations that attack different parts of the HIV virus. People with HIV do produce antibodies against the virus, but they usually target parts that are highly variable, meaning they don’t recognize new viral mutations.
However, a small number of people naturally produce the antibodies that target hidden, conserved parts of the virus.
The trial will enroll 56 healthy HIV-negative adult volunteers at low risk for acquiring the virus, and is expected to last through 2023.