Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin in Uganda

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Uganda is among three African countries where two teams of scientists are set to begin their trials for HIV vaccines based on technologies used to develop COVID-19 jabs.

Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, which was behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, and US pharmaceutical giant Moderna in partnership with Scripps Research, will use different techniques.

The Oxford team’s HIV vaccine utilises a modified adenovirus taken from chimpanzees, while the Moderna one is based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).

The Oxford team is set to start the first phase of trials this month on 101 HIV-negative volunteers aged 18-50 from the UK, Uganda, Kenya and Zambia. Moderna will launch two mRNA trials later this year.

Both methods have been used successfully to stimulate the human immune system against COVID-19 in the past year.

It is hoped that they can be applied to HIV, the disease that leads to AIDS, which has killed an estimated 32 million people since it was identified in 1981 and currently affects 38 million people worldwide, with almost 690,000 dying annually.

The location of the trials in Africa is significant; in recent years, treatments have been discovered to allow many people with HIV to live relatively normal lives, but can cost upward of $500,000 in developed countries.

Despite the success in developing various COVID-19 vaccines, HIV remains far harder to treat than coronaviruses given its propensity to lie dormant for long periods, mutate more quickly than any other known disease, and imbed itself in patients’ DNA, making it all but impossible to permanently cure.

Oxford University’s Prof. Tomas Hanke told The Times: “The moment you’re infected with a single virus, it diversifies in your body. For the coronavirus there are four main variants we are worrying about around the world. For HIV we have to deal with 80,000.” 

The team at the Jenner Institute will aim to stimulate the production of T-cells — which destroy other human cells already infected with a virus — through its modified adenovirus, ChAdOx-1, designed to train the cells to specifically recognize HIV. 

Mr Hanke said the T-cells could prove HIV’s “Achilles heel,” targeting areas “essential for the virus to survive and, importantly, common to most virus variants around the globe.”
The team hopes that if successful, the vaccine could be used to treat HIV-positive patients as early as August this year.

The Moderna team, meanwhile, believes that mRNA technology might be able to trigger enough B-cells — the part of the immune system that makes antibodies — to prevent HIV from adapting to its host.

This belief is based on a trial by Scripps Research, which found that in a small sample of 48 people given a similar vaccine, 97 percent showed a strong immune reaction against HIV. 

Moderna’s European head Dan Staner told The Times: “I believe that mRNA technology is going to be revolutionary. It could be something spectacular if we were able, in the coming years, to bring a vaccine to treat HIV. Let’s let the science speak in the coming months and years, but I do think the sky’s the limit.”

Scripps Prof. William Schief said: “The rapid development and high efficacy of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine bodes really well for our work on HIV.”

Source: ARAB NEWS

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