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Moderna Launches Early Phase of New HIV Vaccine Tests

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday February 1, 2022

Moderna, together with research organization IAVI, has begun testing promising new antibodies against HIV that could one day lead to an effective vaccine via mRNA technology, the biotech firm announced in a news release.

The release detailed how the "first doses have been administered in a clinical trial of experimental HIV vaccine antigens at George Washington University (GWU) School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C."

An effective vaccine against HIV has long been sought, but past efforts have fallen short. The current attempt takes a new approach, however, using messenger RNA to nudge B cells —†a natural part of the body's immune system arsenal — to manufacture a certain kind of protein, called a broadly neutralizing antibody (or bnAb), that is intended to impede the ability of HIV to reproduce, effectively neutralizing the virus.

As text at the IAVI website notes, some individuals naturally produce such broadly effective antibodies, which, "in laboratory tests, are able to neutralize a wide variety of HIV strains.

"The identification of such antibodies has transformed the field of HIV prevention research for two reasons: it provides information to guide the design of vaccines that could elicit bnAbs for protection, and it has opened the door to a new prevention modality: The administration of HIV bnAbs to prevent infection," the IAVI post explains.

As previously reported at EDGE, mRNA strategies for vaccine development were used in the development of vaccines against COVID-19, and that success helped pave the way for using the technique in the quest for a vaccine against HIV.

The Moderna news release relays that the "antigens being evaluated as mRNA in this study were originally developed as proteins by William Schief, Ph.D., professor at Scripps Research and executive director of vaccine design at IAVI's Neutralizing Antibody Center (NAC), and colleagues."

Those proteins have already shown promise in the area of developing a vaccine against HIV, with an earlier trial having "induced the desired B-cell response in 97% of recipients."

The release went on to add: "A series of vaccines, which would begin with the prime-boost immunogens tested here, may be able to target specific naive B cells and induce them to mature into bnAb-producing ones.

"In the lab, bnAbs have been shown to neutralize a broad range of HIV variants, and one bnAb, VRC01, was recently shown to be capable of protecting humans against infection by neutralization-susceptible HIV strains," the release added.

The AIDS crisis has already exceeded the 40-year mark, but the new research holds out hope that the decades-long struggle to achieve an effective vaccine may finally be within reach. As the world saw with the astonishing speed with which vaccines against COVID-19 were developed and deployed, mRNA vaccine technology "offers a more nimble and responsive approach to vaccine design and testing, potentially shaving off years from typical vaccine development timelines," the Moderna news release noted.

"We've seen promising proof of concept for germline targeting in IAVI G001, and this trial lets us take that approach to the next stage," Schief stated in the release.

"What's more, we've been able to expedite production of clinical trial material at a remarkably rapid pace because of Moderna's technology."

Whether the new approach yields an effective vaccine in the next few years remains to be seen but in the meantime, the battle to reduce global instances of HIV transmission continues. Outreach and education are critical to that goal, with testing and treatment foremost in the current arsenal against HIV transmission.

Testing allows individuals to know their HIV status and, once they have determined their status, to take the appropriate steps. HIV-negative individuals can use PrEP, a highly effective means of avoiding HIV infection. Similarly, HIV-positive individuals who undergo an effective treatment regimen can reduce their viral load to undetectable levels, at which point it's no longer possible to transmit the virus to others through sexual contact. Condom use, too, is an effective means of preventing HIV transmission.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.