Breakthrough HIV Vaccine Candidate Triggers Rare Antibodies, Offering Hope for Future Prevention


Breakthrough HIV Vaccine Candidate Triggers Rare Antibodies, Offering Hope for Future Prevention

Researchers at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) have reported that an HIV vaccine candidate triggered the production of elusive broadly neutralizing antibodies in a small group of participants during a 2019 clinical trial. The findings, published in the journal Cell on May 17, provide compelling evidence that a vaccine can stimulate these powerful antibodies to combat diverse strains of HIV, setting the stage for a potential game-changer in the fight against the virus.

Dr. Barton F. Haynes and Dr. S. Munir Alam at DHVI developed the vaccine candidate, which targets a stable region on the HIV-1 outer envelope called the membrane proximal external region (MPER). This area remains constant even as the virus mutates, making it an attractive target for a vaccine. Antibodies against this stable region can block infection by a wide range of circulating HIV strains.

The phase 1 clinical trial involved 20 healthy, HIV-negative participants, with 15 receiving two of the planned four doses of the investigational vaccine and five receiving three doses. The results were impressive, with a 95% serum response rate and a 100% blood CD4+ T-cell response rate after just two immunizations, indicating robust immune activation. Remarkably, broadly neutralizing antibodies were induced after only two doses, a process that typically takes several years post-infection.

Dr. Wilton Williams, lead author and associate professor at Duke's Department of Surgery and DHVI member, expressed excitement about the findings, stating, "To get a broadly neutralizing antibody, a series of events needs to happen, and it typically takes several years post-infection. The challenge has always been to recreate the necessary events in a shorter space of time using a vaccine. It was very exciting to see that, with this vaccine molecule, we could actually get neutralizing antibodies to emerge within weeks."

The trial was halted when one participant experienced a non-life-threatening allergic reaction, similar to rare incidents reported with COVID-19 vaccinations. The team investigated the cause of the event, which was likely due to an additive.

Despite this setback, the vaccine candidate showed promise in other aspects, particularly in how the crucial immune cells remained in a state of development that allowed them to continue acquiring mutations and evolve alongside the ever-changing virus.

The researchers acknowledge that more work is needed to create a more robust response and target additional regions of the virus envelope. A successful HIV vaccine will likely require at least three components, each targeting distinct regions of the virus.

Dr. Haynes emphasized the significance of the findings, stating, "This work is a major step forward as it shows the feasibility of inducing antibodies with immunizations that neutralize the most difficult strains of HIV. Our next steps are to induce more potent neutralizing antibodies against other sites on HIV to prevent virus escape. We are not there yet, but the way forward is now much clearer."

As the world continues to grapple with the challenges posed by HIV, this breakthrough offers renewed hope for the development of an effective vaccine. While there is still a long road ahead, the Duke Human Vaccine Institute's findings demonstrate that inducing broadly neutralizing antibodies through vaccination is indeed possible, paving the way for future advancements in HIV prevention.