Is There New Hope for an HIV Vaccine?

syringe_morguefileDr. Robert Gallo is an American with deep roots in the history of HIV. America’s controversial 1984 claim that Gallo had discovered HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, led to a battle between the US and France, which claimed the same. French scientists Francoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc A. Montagnier ultimately won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of HIV, but Gallo and Montagnier work together to bring attention to the fact that the HIV crisis is far from over, despite its slip from the front pages of mainstream media.

Gallo is in the news again, this time for his part in developing a vaccine against the virus. Although the US promised a vaccine ready for clinical trials by 1986, clearly there was no success with that.  There have been many hopes for HIV vaccines in the past, and none of them have panned out.

Is it time to get excited? Well, not immediately.  Gallo acknowledges that it is early days yet, but hopes that this one may work. HIV targets cells in the immune system, the very cells that would respond to an attacking virus. Simply put, if the cells to repel HIV have already been attacked by HIV, it’s difficult to make a vaccine that can work.  Gallo and company’s vaccine candidate inhibits HIV from actually getting into the immune cells in the first place. This early trial will have 60 participants and is looking at safety only. If results are favourable, then it goes to the next step of testing.

No HIV vaccine formula has yet to offer sufficient protection against this highly challenging virus to make it public health success. Dr. Anthony Fauci, another American leader in the field of HIV knowledge just received an award from the Yale school of Public Health for his outstanding contributions in the field. In his remarks at the ceremony, Fauci said ending AIDS will need several approaches, including the elusive vaccine. At present, he said the proven treatment as prevention strategy, led internationally by Canada’s Dr. Julio Montaner, is an enormous part of halting HIV. Getting people on treatment almost as soon as they’re diagnosed will keep the levels of virus in their bodies low, maximizing their health and minimizing the chance of transmission.

Some populations (men who have sex with men, mostly) are using PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis. PrEP is when a person who doesn’t have HIV uses anti-HIV drugs to prevent HIV infection, and it’s proven successful for some.  This approach is gaining ground, even though its daily pill regimen may not be for everyone. It’s not readily available in Canada yet, though, so the tried and true prevention methods women have for now are clear communication, learning about HIV, and safe sex.

Until a vaccine is proven and ready for the world, we’ll have to keep fighting the spread of HIV as we know how.

Janet  |  @janet_madsen


Photo: MorgueFile