The race for an HIV vaccine may be coming to a close, sooner than you think.
Pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, along with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said today they are moving forward with a large-scale efficacy trial of their new HIV vaccine.
The announcement was made on the eve of World AIDS Day tomorrow.
The vaccine trial, called “Imbokodo,” will test a mosaic vaccine, a drug capable of preventing infection from a wide range of HIV strains.
Johnson & Johnson officials are billing the product as a potential “global vaccine.”
“Having a preventive vaccine would be a vital tool in a comprehensive global strategy to end the HIV pandemic,” said Dr. Johan Van Hoof, global head of Infectious Diseases and Vaccines at Janssen, a pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.
“Our investigational vaccine is based on mosaic antigens that have been engineered using genes from a wide range of different HIV subtypes. The ultimate goal is to deliver a ‘global vaccine’ that could be deployed in any geographic region to help protect vulnerable populations at risk of infection,” Van Hoof said in a statement.
Testing in Africa
The new phase II large-scale testing will investigate whether or not the drug will be able to safely reduce incidence of HIV infection among 2,600 female participants in sub-Saharan Africa.
Women and girls account for almost 60 percent of individuals living with HIV in eastern and southern Africa.
The announcement builds off of an earlier release this year when Johnson & Johnson first unveiled the results of their vaccine in a smaller experiment.
That vaccine yielded a 100 percent antibody response against HIV in the study participants.
Out of 350 volunteers in that trial, every participant achieved immunity against every strain of HIV.
Johnson & Johnson previously hinted at the announcement of the Imbokodo study a few months back at the Global Citizen Festival in New York City, a concert and gathering to take action on social issues, including HIV.
The company hopes to get their vaccine to market within five years.
A lot of work ahead
Advocates say that while this is an important step forward, there is still much to be done to end HIV and increase the quality of life of those living with the disease.
Pierre-Cédric Crouch, PhD, director of nursing for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation told Healthline, “An HIV vaccine would have a meaningful effect on how people at risk for HIV view their sexuality, and reduce the fears and stigmas that people living with HIV might experience.”
“If we are fortunate enough to see an HIV vaccine in the near future, we must remember that a vaccine is not a cure, and that a vaccine does not change the fact that many people living with HIV — even in the U.S. — cannot gain access to medications and do not have the necessary support to be able to stay on treatment,” Crouch added.
Other HIV research
Johnson & Johnson is not the only organization to make headlines about a potential HIV treatment recently.
In September, the National Institutes of Health, in conjunction with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, stated that they had engineered an antibody that attacks 99 percent of HIV strains.
The antibody is a known as a “broadly neutralizing antibody” for its ability to attack many different strains of the virus.
This process works by having the antibodies bind to a structural element of HIV called a spike, which is common across different strains of the virus.
“These super-engineered antibodies seem to go beyond the natural and could have more applications than we have imagined to date,” Linda-Gail Bekker, president of the International AIDS Society, told the BBC.
However, those trials have yet to be conducted on humans.
Their results were based on a small experiment, which included 24 monkeys that were injected with the antibodies. Researchers are hoping to begin human testing as soon as next year.
HIV prevention methods
A study this week in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a dramatic drop in HIV in an East African population, following the rollout of a U.S.-funded anti-HIV program.
It was the first large-scale study to track a population before, during, and after the implementation of an HIV prevention program.
HIV/AIDS remains a serious global health concern, particularly in Africa.
In 2016, an estimated 36 million people were living with the disease. More than 1 million people died from the disease that same year.
Since its discovery in 1981, HIV/AIDS is estimated to have killed roughly 35 million people.
But, what was once an incurable disease is now highly manageable, with many individuals in the United States living into old age, with near-normal lifespans.
With this week’s announcements, there appears to be renewed hope for a cure, decades in the making.
“Developing a vaccine against HIV is a top priority and our best hope for a world without AIDS. Finding an effective HIV vaccine to protect people at risk has been a major scientific challenge, but today there is a new optimism that we can get there,” said Paul Stoffels, Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer, in a press statement.