According to a team of scientists from the US, monkeys were protected from deadly HIV via a vaccination.
Vaccines have never worked against HIV which affects the very immune system of the host while vaccines are to assist the latter to deal with infections. To counter this predicament, the researchers modified the DNA of the monkeys to make the cells capable to fight the virus.
This marks a huge step forward and might be used in human trials soon.
The technique used involved inserting a new piece of DNA into muscle cells. The additional DNA included the keys to neutralise HIV: it coded for instructions that would lead to the manufacture of tools to remove the virus from cells into the bloodstream. Monkeys which had a great amount of HIV in their systems, comparable to chronically infected patients, were fed with the new piece of DNA and were thereafter protected from all types of HIV for over 30 weeks.
The lead researcher, Michael Farzan, told BBC: “We are closer than any other approach to universal protection, but we still have hurdles, primarily with safety for giving it to many, many people”.
Professor Farzan stated that the vaccine they made is more powerful than any antibody. Generally, methods to counter the virus fail because the latter mutates so fast that they cannot keep up. But, this vaccine has as target the areas that the virus aims to change, instead of having the virus itself as target which would be problematic since it is ever-changing itself.
The researchers intend to start clinical trials for HIV-infected patients who cannot take conventional drug therapies.
Other scientists have supported this type of strategy.
Prof Nancy Haigwood, of Oregon Health & Science University, commented: “In the absence of a vaccine that can elicit broadly protective immunity and prevent infection, and given the lack of major breakthroughs on the horizon to provide one, the idea of conferring potent, sustained vaccine-like protection against HIV infection through gene therapy is certainly worth strong consideration.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, of the US National Institutes of Health, said: “It would be advantageous to curb HIV infection without daily antiretroviral drugs because of their cost, the potential for negative side-effects from lifelong therapy, and the difficulties some patients have adhering to daily drug regimens and tolerating certain drugs.