New Hope for an AIDS Vaccine?

by Sharon Hopkins

In 2013, HIV / AIDS remains as much of a killer disease as it did years ago. On a worldwide scale, an estimated 35 million plus people now live with the HIV virus and in 2012, 1.2 million people died of the disease. Unfortunately, the scientific and medical community is no closer to discovering a cure for this deadly virus and the numbers keep escalating. A few years back, the pharmaceutical giant Merck publicly acknowledged their failure to produce a successful AIDS vaccine sending researchers and doctors back to the drawing board. A recent medical study conducted by the Oregon Health & Science University however shows encouraging signs that the tide may have turned in terms of producing a possible AIDS vaccine that could protect humans from this fatal disease.

In this study, researchers at the OHSU believe that they have developed a vaccine that has helped eradicate the virus that causes AIDS in monkeys. In monkeys, AIDS is caused by a virus known as SIV or Simian Immunodeficiency virus, which is similar to HIV but several times deadlier. Researchers on the study created a genetically engineered virus known as the cytomegalovirus (CMV) and used it in the vaccine to treat AIDS infected monkeys. Sixteen rhesus macaque monkeys were first vaccinated with the CMV virus and then infected with the SIV virus rectally, vaginally or intravenously. Over time SIV levels in the monkey's blood and tissue was monitored closely. The study was based on the theory that the vaccine would instigate the monkey's white blood cells to search and destroy the cells infected with the deadly SIV virus. According to Louis Picker, the associate director of the OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute stated that by doing this, “they were teaching the monkey's body to better 'prepare its defenses' to combat the disease."  

Two months after the initial vaccination and exposure to the infection, seven of the sixteen monkeys didn't make it. From the remaining nine, the virus had taken hold and was rapidly spreading before the vaccine had started to kick in. However, after a year, it was discovered that eight of these nine monkeys no longer showed any signs of SIV infection. Three years later, the same monkeys seemed SIV-free with low levels of the infection appearing in only one monkey. The infected cells of the monkeys were injected into other healthy specimens as well but the infection did not spread or take hold indicating that the virus has lost its efficacy. The results of this study were initially published online by the journal Nature.

While the results of the study are promising and experts insist that a possible cure for HIV / AIDS may be around the corner, the authors of the study err on the side of caution. They feel that while the virus may have been cleared from the monkey's bodies, there is still a lot more research required before using this type of vaccine in humans infected with the disease. The possibility that the virus still may be present in very low levels cannot be ruled out either though the results do indicate otherwise.

Nonetheless, the data of this study provides a compelling argument for the use of a vaccine to prevent and treat HIV / AIDS. Since the SIV / HIV virus is the most lethal in its initial stages of infection, such a vaccine also creates a means of protection and cure rather than just a form of controlling the disease. The findings are overall extremely promising and have prompted a new wave of research towards discovering a cure for HIV / AIDS.



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