US scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California have successfully altered the DNA of monkeys to give their cells HIV-fighting properties, adding a new radical approach to HIV vaccinations.
The research team is describing their discovery as a “big deal”, saying they want to move ahead with human trials as soon as possible. Independent experts agree, saying the idea of human trials is worth “strong consideration”.
Vaccines are used to train the immune system to fight virus. This new technique involves introducing a new section of DNA inside healthy muscle cells using gene therapy. The new section of DNA contains the instructions for neutralizing HIV.
The report, which was published in the journal Nature, shows that the monkeys were protected from all HIV types for up to 34 weeks. It also showed that even chronically infected monkeys benefited from the vaccine which leads researchers to believe the approach could prove useful in already infected people.
Prof Michael Farzan, lead researcher, said, “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. We’re very proud of it and we think it’s a big deal, but we are biased.”
Up to now, vaccines against HIV struggle because the virus mutates so quickly, constantly shifting targets. This new vaccine targets the areas that the virus tries to change.
Professor Farzan explains, “The real strength of this thing is that it is more potent than any antibody.” But there are safety concerns. During traditional vaccinations, the immune system responds after it’s been presented with a threat. The new gene therapy approach turns cells into factories that continually generate artificial HIV killers.
The long-term effects are not known.
This news comes just as a new aggressive form of HIV was discovered in Cuba.