Five things you didn’t know about the search for a HIV Vaccine

18 May 2015

[caption id="attachment_15776" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Archbishop Desmond Tutu gets an HIV test Archbishop Desmond Tutu gets an HIV test[/caption] Developing an HIV vaccine is one of the greatest scientific challenges in history. Leading scientists have dedicated their careers to breaking this enigma - some of them in the UK, some in Africa where their work is blazing a trail for other African scientists. Every day, they are edging closer to a breakthrough. Today, May 18th, is HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, so here are five things you probably didn’t know about their mission to eliminate one of the deadliest diseases in history: 1. HIV is a very, very tricky customer The HIV vaccine directly attacks the immune system, turning the cells that are supposed to be fighting it into virus factories. Once a single virus particle enters the bloodstream, it quickly duplicates and mutates into a multitude of slightly different versions, so any medicine has to be able to kill many different versions of the virus. The virus is so effective that not a single person has independently fought it off. This deprives researchers of a common method of designing a vaccine: copying the natural response of the body’s immune system. 2. Scientists have prevented HIV infection in mice, monkeys – and humans In response to the challenge of hitting a moving target with your best players out injured and no training manual, scientists have learnt some clever tricks. One is to inject a non-dangerous virus to get the immune system going, then follow up with a bit of an HIV virus, to convince the white blood cells to prepare in advance for a full scale HIV attack. This method led to a breakthrough back in 2009 - a 31% reduction in HIV infection in volunteers tested in Thailand. Scientists at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) are now taking this idea even further, using cutting edge technology to create a ‘mosaic’ HIV virus. This patchwork quilt will contain all the bits of the HIV virus that never change, no matter how many times it mutates, stitched together - so that your immune system is covered, whichever strain of the disease attacks. 3. Molecular and genetic engineering can turn years into days Another breakthrough came with the discovery of special antibodies that can fight HIV – but are made in the body much too slowly to defend against an HIV attack. These can be injected straight into a healthy body, or even better, used for reverse engineering. That is, scientists are using the ‘key’ shape on these antibodies to work out what the matching ‘lock’ shape on the HIV virus looks like. They hope to then create safe copies of these ‘lock’ shaped bits, which will trigger the production of antibodies when injected into the body, protecting against HIV infection. And just in case this isn’t clever enough for you, scientists at IAVI are hoping to take this one step further. Experiments are ongoing to re-write the genetic code of the non-dangerous virus mentioned above to include instructions for producing these special antibodies. So when the non-dangerous virus is injected, it will turn cells in the body into antibody factories, ready to fight off HIV should it rear its ugly head. 4. HIV vaccine science will save millions of lives – and billions of dollars In four paragraphs, I’ve summed up 30 years of expensive, complicated, two steps forward-one step back work, carried out by some of the smartest people on the planet. As Bill Gates said earlier this year, we can be optimistic that an HIV vaccine – and a cure – will be found within the next 15 years, but let’s not pretend it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to need lots of money, and expertise, and commitment by those who can deliver those two things. The length of time and upfront costs needed by HIV vaccine R&D can work as barriers to big pharmaceutical companies getting involved. We need governments who understand the long-term public and economic value to get behind the work, no matter how long it takes. The UK Government has helped fund the work in the past, but we need them to keep going, and keep their eyes on the prize. The figures add up. An HIV vaccine could save $95bn in treatment costs alone in its first ten years, and expand poor countries’ economies by over $15,000 per life saved – all for a one off outlay of less than $1bn. To put this cost in perspective, we spend $2bn globally every year on hair loss surgery (again, statistic courtesy of Bill Gates). 5. Tell your government to get behind an HIV Vaccine Every year, 1.5 million people die from AIDS, after the HIV virus has damaged their immune system so much that they can’t defend themselves against even common illnesses. AIDS has killed half of the 78 million people it has infected in the last four decades, and is now the leading killer of adult women in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV/AIDS destroys families, takes away futures and throws people into poverty, while holding back whole continents. It’s not all bad news - the amazing work of the Global Fund, combined with new drugs to treat HIV and increased access to cheaper, generic versions of such drugs, has slowed the growth of this epidemic. But despite this huge achievement, there are still 2.1 million new HIV infections every year. We simply will not see HIV/AIDS eliminated without a vaccine. This HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, let’s spare a thought for the scientists working to get us there, and then spend a minute to tell our governments why it is worth paying for their work. If you’re in the UK, please tweet Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, with a selfie and your message supporting the development of an HIV Vaccine: Dear @JoJohnsonMP please support the search for an @AIDSVaccine this #HVAD by funding #HIV basic science @RESULTSUK For more information, check out this great article by Wayne Koff, IAVI’s Chief Scientific Officer, and watch this video featuring scientists from across the world. Alternatively, you can email, Parliamentary Advocacy Coordinator at RESULTS UK and lead for Global Health R&D.

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Naveed Chaudhri

Head of Campaigns

Naveed Chaudhri is the Head of Campaigns. Naveed’s passion is to help build grassroots campaigns networks to increase public support for improving the lives of people in poor communities. Previously working at Oxfam and VSO, he has long experience managing activism and campaigning programmes,...


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