Is an HIV vaccine on the horizon?

BY Rebecca Jacobson and Robert Pursell  March 4, 2014 at 11:13 AM EST
Creative Commons photo by ttfnrob on flickr,

Creative Commons photo by ttfnrob on flickr.

Researchers at the University of Miami may have made a modest breakthrough in the search for an HIV vaccination. A vaccine developed at the school has been shown to prevent mice from becoming infected with HIV. The findings were published in the February edition of the Journal of Virology.

Assistant professor of microbiology Geoffrey W. Stone says that the modest study has had “some very dramatic results,” but that it could take as long as a decade before it’s available for widespread human use. The next steps to test the vaccine’s effectiveness include trials on larger animals and clinical trials on people.

Traditionally, vaccines use a dead or weakened copy of a virus to trigger your immune system to make antibodies, creating specialized killer T-cells trained to attack a specific disease. It basically acts like a mafioso: “Hey, immune system, this is a flu virus. This is how to kill it. Remember this the next time you see it.”

But HIV attacks the immune system’s white blood cells, particularly your helper T-cells, which are sometimes referred to as the “generals” of the immune system because they rally other immune cells and help create antibodies to fight disease. It’s a Trojan horse, basically, getting past the body’s warning system and killing its immune system soldiers. Then it multiplies rapidly, and the body is left without an army to defend itself.

Without the helper T cells, the body can’t create antibodies to fight the HIV virus. And as the virus kills off these helper T-cells and other valuable immune cells, the body loses the ability to fight any infections, leading to AIDS.

Researchers have been searching for a way to trigger the body’s immune response to HIV by programming the T-cells to respond and mount an attack, rather than getting slaughtered by the virus. University of Miami researchers attached a copy of the HIV virus to an immune cell using a protein (CD40). The hope is to enable the T-cells to “see” the HIV virus before it attacks them, rally the troops, and produce killer T cells, the body’s specialized virus hit-men, to wipe out the virus.

Stone tested this technique in mice. He found that the mice resisted infection, even they were exposed to 10 million viruses, according to the study.

More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. have HIV. Nearly one in six are unaware they have the infection.