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At one point in time, an HIV vaccine seemed like an empty pipe dream. The virus mutates so quickly that all attempts have ended in futility. A new study has revealed a very different type of vaccine that sounds risky but could work miracles in the long run.
People who live with HIV aren’t without life-prolonging options. If they’re lucky, they have access to antiretroviral therapy. These drugs reduce likelihood of transmission and can prolong life of an HIV patient for decades. But these drugs are costly and don’t solve the global problem that results in 2.3 million new HIV patients each year. A preventative vaccine would be the most promising way to prevent the spread of HIV and possibly eradicate the disease.
Help may be on the horizon. A radical new vaccine reportedly protects monkeys from contracting HIV when exposed. This vaccine doesn’t work in the usual manner, which is to cause the immune system to react to the threat of infection. Rather, researchers used a form of gene therapy in this experimental vaccine, which successfully tweaked the a group of monkeys’ DNA “to give their cells HIV-fighting properties.”
The prospect of a human trial is a scary one, as introducing new DNA into otherwise normal cells could work an unpredictable reaction. But if successful, the new DNA would allow cells to neutralize HIV throughout the body. The monkeys in this study remained HIV-free for the 34 week experimental period. A vaccine that uses gene therapy would be much more powerful than chasing the constant threat of HIV mutation.
However, there are clear and present safety questions. After conventional vaccination, the immune system responds only after it is presented with a threat. The gene therapy approach turns cells into factories that constantly spew out the artificial HIV-killers, and the long-term implications of this process are unknown.
Naturally, all parties involved acknowledge the risk of an HIV vaccine. Any vaccine in a testing stage is considered potentially dangerous. This particular vaccine doesn’t behave conventionally by causing immune systems to respond to a threat. Instead, this vaccine would use gene therapy to turn human cells into HIV-destroyers. It sounds effective in theory, but who knows how a human body shall respond.
Trials are expected to begin this year with patients who already have HIV.