Robert Gallo is the one who co-discovered the HIV virus back in 1984. After his initial discovery, he created a blood test that detects the virus in humans, and now he’s onto his next breakthrough, a potential HIV vaccine. After 31 years of research, Gallo and his team at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Institute of Human Virology are ready to start human trials of the vaccine. “The results in monkeys are interesting, but they’re not perfect,” Gallo said. “If we keep just using monkeys, we’re never going anywhere. We need for humans to respond.”
Creating an HIV vaccine has been difficult for researchers because the disease attacks the immune system, rendering the body unable to fight back. Plus, no one has ever been cured of the disease so there is no human recovery model to study. Further complicating things, after attacking T cells, HIV becomes undetectable to the human immune system. To combat the virus, Gallo’s team developed an antibody that blocks the virus before it attacks T cells while it’s still visible. The vaccine works by targeting parts of the surface proteins that the virus attempts to hide.
If proven effective, people with HIV would take the vaccine one to two times a year. This treatment would be much easier on their bodies than the current expensive antiretroviral cocktail treatments that are currently administered. Although these medications allow people to survive for many years with the HIV virus, sufferers have a higher risk of developing cancers of the liver, lung, neck and head. Current treatment courses also require multiple doctor visits and many of the 1.2 million HIV-positive adults in the U.S. have inadequate health coverage. A vaccine would give sufferers a more effective treatment that would also be more cost effective.
The vaccine has been in development for over 15 years before it goes to human trial later this month. The trial will be a three-phase process. The first will last about a year and will assess whether the drug is safe in humans. In phase two, researchers will gauge just how effective the vaccine is against HIV. For the third and final phase, the FDA will evaluate the vaccine for use by the general public and determine whether it should be sold on the market. The final phase will be lengthy, lasting a few years.
“While we still have more important basic research to do to crack the antibody protection challenge, this first step is an important one for us to learn how people respond,” Gallo said. The institute’s research is made possible in part by a $23.4 million donation given by a consortium led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.