‘We are in a golden age in HIV vaccine science’

Clinical trial teams in sub-Saharan Africa have received the green light to kick of the second large trial to evaluate and assess the efficacy of vaccine concepts for HIV.

The trial was launched just in time for World Aids Day 2017 and aims to enrol 2 600 HIV-negative women between the ages of 18 and 35.

Exciting occasion

The new phase, which is dubbed Imbokodo, sees participants receiving their vaccinations at sites around South Africa, and processes are in motion to conduct the study in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) president, Dr Glenda Gray, spoke to Health24 and said it is an exciting occasion because we have the third large programme in the field and we're covering several bases.

"They all look promising and we hope that by having this kind of strategy we'll reach an answer more quickly.

"We have these large-scale studies which involve thousands of men and women who want to volunteer for these studies for several reasons. Some have volunteered because they want to contribute to science, whereas others may have a family member or partner infected by the virus, or they are at risk of HIV acquisition," said Gray.

Processes of the trial

For the studies, teams inform volunteers of ways to protect themselves against the virus – using condoms, having their partners tested, minimizing risky behaviour, and if they wish, they can take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP) which is a method of protecting yourself, should you consider yourself at considerable risk of contracting the virus.

In their statement, the SAMRC explained that all Imbokodo participants will receive vaccinations at four time points over one year. They will be randomly assigned to receive either the experimental vaccine regimen or placebo.

The experimental regimen is made up of four doses of the quadrivalent mosaic vaccine. The final two doses will be given together with doses of HIV protein (clade C gp140) and an aluminium phosphate adjuvant to boost the immune responses. Participants will be followed for at least two years.

Gray said: "We are in a golden age in HIV vaccine science. In the next four years, we have the potential to change the game, and bring valuable tools to the public to protect communities from HIV."

Thus far, researchers, doctors and scientists are working towards protecting those who are not infected with the HI virus in running these vaccine trials.

But what about a cure?

For those who have been infected and are currently living with the virus, Gray said that finding a cure for the virus is incredibly challenging because of the virus hiding in reservoirs in the body.

"One is able to take anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs) and the drugs can stop the replication of the HIV in your bloodstream, but the pills don't penetrate into the reservoirs very well.

"ARVs find it difficult to penetrate certain reservoirs in our body, like the lymph nodes, the brain, the spleen, etc. There is a global effort underway and researchers are considering the best approach," said Gray.

Even though the rare case of the Berlin Patient was an incredible win for combating the deadly virus, Gray said this method is not the most feasible and safe method.