Scientists have tried for years to make an effective HIV vaccine, only to be thwarted by the shifty, mutating virus’s ability to evade the immune system. But vaccine development efforts continue, as evidenced by a bi-coastal collaboration Seattle BioMed has just put together to battle the virus.
The nonprofit global health research center today is announcing that’s secured a $9.8 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease to create two new vaccine candidates to prevent HIV infection. To do so, Seattle BioMed will lead a consortium of academic institutions from both Seattle and New York: Rockefeller University, the University of Washington, the Seattle Children’s Hospital, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The NIAID cash will be spread out over a seven-year period, during which the investigator group will try to get two vaccine candidates to the point that they can be tested for safety in a Phase I clinical trial. The goal of the venture is to produce a vaccine that, once injected, causes people to generate “broadly neutralizing” antibodies against HIV-1, the virus that causes AIDS.
AIDS, of course, was once a death sentence before the rise of antiviral drugs that have turned the disorder into a chronic, manageable condition—for patients who can afford and tolerate the drugs. Foster City, CA-based Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) came to prominence marketing such drugs and expanding peoples’ access to them across the world. Still, patients have to take such drugs for the rest of their lives, both taxing the healthcare system and exposing people to potential side effects. A big need exists to rid the need for chronic pills, either with a vaccine or otherwise. And AIDS still kills more than 3 million people around the world every year, according to Seattle BioMed.
“While access to anti-retroviral therapies has increased, the best route of defeating the epidemic remains a universally effective HIV-1 vaccine,” said Leonidas Stamatatos, a scientific director at Seattle BioMed, and the principal investigator of the consortium, in a statement.
The consortium is not the only one currently pursuing an HIV vaccine. Seattle’s Theraclone Sciences, for instance, joined up with the International Aids Vaccine Initiative (a nonprofit supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) a few years ago in a vaccine development effort. And numerous academics groups are working on HIV vaccines as well.
Meanwhile, new approaches to treating, rather than preventing, HIV infection are generating buzz. Investors piled into Sangamo Biosciences (NASDAQ: SGMO) last week, for example, after its gene editing technology showed signs in a small, early-stage human trial, that it might be able to push HIV virus down to low or even undetectable levels.