An HIV vaccine that could outwit the deadly virus could undergo human trials in as little as a year’s time, scientists say.
The ‘mosaic vaccine’, which is being designed by an international team of investigators, works by being able to adapt to the virus as it mutates.
HIV’s ability to evolve rapidly is what lets it dodge current drugs.
Bette Korber from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, is one of the scientists who has worked on the project for 20 years.
She said: ‘We’re in the evolutionary fast lane studying HIV.
‘If you give just one drug, HIV evolves away from it. That why treatments involve three or four drugs at once.’
The HIV virus, which is largely made up of proteins, causes AIDS – a disease that destroys the body’s immune system leaving sufferers vulnerable to infections and tumours. The disease killed 1.8million people worldwide in 2009.
Traditional HIV vaccines are designed to stimulate the body’s immune system to recognize naturally occurring stretches of specific amino acids in the virus’ proteins.
However, a mosaic vaccine is composed of many sets of synthetic, computer-generated sequences of proteins. These can cue the body’s immune system to respond to a variety of HIV mutations.
It is put together using a huge database created by Korber and her colleagues at LANL, which contains information from hundreds of thousands of HIV fragments.
Such a vaccine could break a 25-year stalemate in the search for a cure of a disease that infects 7,500 people a day and kills two million a year. All previous vaccine trials have ended in failure.
Early computer models predicted that mosaic vaccines would perform better than natural HIV genes.
This was partly confirmed last year, when results published in Nature Medicine found mosaic vaccines provoked powerful immune responses in both mice and monkeys.
Now a consortium of researchers, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and National Institutes of Health, hope to launch human trials of a mosaic vaccine by late 2012.
Dr Korber, who has lost a couple of friends to Aids, said she had high hopes for the novel approach.
‘It has been the focus of my life to make a vaccine happen,’ she said.
‘At this point, because of the results in animal studies, I’m confident this is a good approach that merits testing in humans.’
If the early phase safety trial shows the vaccine is safe to use on humans, scientists can move on to a phase two trial where the vaccine would be tested on larger groups to assess how well it works.
An estimated 73,000 Britons have HIV, including more than 21,000 who are unaware that they have the virus.
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