Is a Successful HIV Vaccine Finally on the Horizon?
Few vaccines have been as complicated—and filled with false starts and crushed hopes—as the development of an HIV vaccine.
While antivirals help HIV-positive patients live longer and reduce viral transmission to virtually nil, these medications must be taken for life, and preventative medications like pre-exposure prophylaxis, known as PrEP, need to be taken every day to be effective. Vaccines, even if they need boosters, would make prevention much easier.
In August, Moderna began human trials for two HIV vaccine candidates based on messenger RNA.
As they have with the Covid-19 pandemic, mRNA vaccines could change the game. The technology could be applied for gene editing therapy, cancer, other infectious diseases—even a universal influenza vaccine.
Ever since HIV was discovered as the virus causing AIDS, researchers have been searching for a vaccine. But the decades-long journey has so far been fruitless; while some vaccine candidates showed promise in early trials, none of them have worked well among later-stage clinical trials.
There are two main reasons for this: HIV evolves incredibly quickly, and the structure of the virus makes it very difficult to neutralize with antibodies.
"We in HIV medicine have been desperate to find a vaccine that has effectiveness, but this goal has been elusive so far."
"You know the panic that goes on when a new coronavirus variant surfaces?" asked John Moore, professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine who has researched HIV vaccines for 25 years. "With HIV, that kind of variation [happens] pretty much every day in everybody who's infected. It's just orders of magnitude more variable a virus."
Vaccines like these usually work by imitating the outer layer of a virus to teach cells how to recognize and fight off the real thing off before it enters the cell. "If you can prevent landing, you can essentially keep the virus out of the cell," said Larry Corey, the former president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who helped run a recent trial of a Johnson & Johnson HIV vaccine candidate, which failed its first efficacy trial.
Like the coronavirus, HIV also has a spike protein with a receptor-binding domain—what Moore calls "the notorious RBD"—that could be neutralized with antibodies. But while that target sticks out like a sore thumb in a virus like SARS-CoV-2, in HIV it's buried under a dense shield. That's not the only target for neutralizing the virus, but all of the targets evolve rapidly and are difficult to reach.
"We understand these targets. We know where they are. But it's still proving incredibly difficult to raise antibodies against them by vaccination," Moore said.
In fact, mRNA vaccines for HIV have been under development for years. The Covid vaccines were built on decades of that research. But it's not as simple as building on this momentum, because of how much more complicated HIV is than SARS-CoV-2, researchers said.
"They haven't succeeded because they were not designed appropriately and haven't been able to induce what is necessary for them to induce," Moore said. "The mRNA technology will enable you to produce a lot of antibodies to the HIV envelope, but if they're the wrong antibodies that doesn't solve the problem."
Part of the problem is that the HIV vaccines have to perform better than our own immune systems. Many vaccines are created by imitating how our bodies overcome an infection, but that doesn't happen with HIV. Once you have the virus, you can't fight it off on your own.
"The human immune system actually does not know how to innately cure HIV," Corey said. "We needed to improve upon the human immune system to make it quicker… with Covid. But we have to actually be better than the human immune system" with HIV.
But in the past few years, there have been impressive leaps in understanding how an HIV vaccine might work. Scientists have known for decades that neutralizing antibodies are key for a vaccine. But in 2010 or so, they were able to mimic the HIV spike and understand how antibodies need to disable the virus. "It helps us understand the nature of the problem, but doesn't instantly solve the problem," Moore said. "Without neutralizing antibodies, you don't have a chance."
Because the vaccines need to induce broadly neutralizing antibodies, and because it's very difficult to neutralize the highly variable HIV, any vaccine will likely be a series of shots that teach the immune system to be on the lookout for a variety of potential attacks.
"Each dose is going to have to have a different purpose," Corey said. "And we hope by the end of the third or fourth dose, we will achieve the level of neutralization that we want."
That's not ideal, because each individual component has to be made and tested—and four shots make the vaccine harder to administer.
"You wouldn't even be going down that route, if there was a better alternative," Moore said. "But there isn't a better alternative."
The mRNA platform is exciting because it is easily customizable, which is especially important in fighting against a shapeshifting, complicated virus. And the mRNA platform has shown itself, in the Covid pandemic, to be safe and quick to make. Effective Covid vaccines were comparatively easy to develop, since the coronavirus is easier to battle than HIV. But companies like Moderna are capitalizing on their success to launch other mRNA therapeutics and vaccines, including the HIV trial.
"You can make the vaccine in two months, three months, in a research lab, and not a year—and the cost of that is really less," Corey said. "It gives us a chance to try many more options, if we've got a good response."
In a trial on macaque monkeys, the Moderna vaccine reduced the chances of infection by 85 percent. "The mRNA platform represents a very promising approach for the development of an HIV vaccine in the future," said Dr. Peng Zhang, who is helping lead the trial at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Moderna's trial in humans represents "a very exciting possibility for the prevention of HIV infection," Dr. Monica Gandhi, director of the UCSF-Gladstone Center for AIDS Research, said in an email. "We in HIV medicine have been desperate to find a vaccine that has effectiveness, but this goal has been elusive so far."
If a successful HIV vaccine is developed, the series of shots could include an mRNA shot that primes the immune system, followed by protein subunits that generate the necessary antibodies, Moore said.
"I think it's the only thing that's worth doing," he said. "Without something complicated like that, you have no chance of inducing broadly neutralizing antibodies."
"I can't guarantee you that's going to work," Moore added. "It may completely fail. But at least it's got some science behind it."
This is part 2 of a three part series on a new generation of doctors leading the charge to make the health care industry more sustainable - for the benefit of their patients and the planet. Read part 1 here.
After graduating from her studies as an engineer, Nora Stroetzel ticked off the top item on her bucket list and traveled the world for a year. She loved remote places like the Indonesian rain forest she reached only by hiking for several days on foot, mountain villages in the Himalayas, and diving at reefs that were only accessible by local fishing boats.
“But no matter how far from civilization I ventured, one thing was already there: plastic,” Stroetzel says. “Plastic that would stay there for centuries, on 12,000 foot peaks and on beaches several hundred miles from the nearest city.” She saw “wild orangutans that could be lured by rustling plastic and hermit crabs that used plastic lids as dwellings instead of shells.”
While traveling she started volunteering for beach cleanups and helped build a recycling station in Indonesia. But the pivotal moment for her came after she returned to her hometown Kiel in Germany. “At the dentist, they gave me a plastic cup to rinse my mouth. I used it for maybe ten seconds before it was tossed out,” Stroetzel says. “That made me really angry.”
She decided to research alternatives for plastic in the medical sector and learned that cups could be reused and easily disinfected. All dentists routinely disinfect their tools anyway and, Stroetzel reasoned, it wouldn’t be too hard to extend that practice to cups.
It's a good example for how often plastic is used unnecessarily in medical practice, she says. The health care sector is the fifth biggest source of pollution and trash in industrialized countries. In the U.S., hospitals generate an estimated 6,000 tons of waste per day, including an average of 400 grams of plastic per patient per day, and this sector produces 8.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
“Sustainable alternatives exist,” Stroetzel says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
When Stroetzel spoke with medical staff in Germany, she found they were often frustrated by all of this waste, especially as they took care to avoid single-use plastic at home. Doctors in other countries share this frustration. In a recent poll, nine out of ten doctors in Germany said they’re aware of the urgency to find sustainable solutions in the health industry but don’t know how to achieve this goal.
After a year of researching more sustainable alternatives, Stroetzel founded a social enterprise startup called POP, short for Practice Without Plastic, together with IT expert Nicolai Niethe, to offer well-researched solutions. “Sustainable alternatives exist,” she says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
In addition to reusable dentist cups, other good options for the heath care sector include washable N95 face masks and gloves made from nitrile, which waste less water and energy in their production. But Stroetzel admits that truly making a medical facility more sustainable is a complex task. “This includes negotiating with manufacturers who often package medical materials in double and triple layers of extra plastic.”
While initiatives such as Stroetzel’s provide much needed information, other experts reason that a wholesale rethinking of healthcare is needed. Voluntary action won’t be enough, and government should set the right example. Kari Nadeau, a Stanford physician who has spent 30 years researching the effects of environmental pollution on the immune system, and Kenneth Kizer, the former undersecretary for health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote in JAMA last year that the medical industry and federal agencies that provide health care should be required to measure and make public their carbon footprints. “Government health systems do not disclose these data (and very rarely do private health care organizations), unlike more than 90% of the Standard & Poor’s top 500 companies and many nongovernment entities," they explained. "This could constitute a substantial step toward better equipping health professionals to confront climate change and other planetary health problems.”
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S.
Kizer and Nadeau look to the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), which created a Sustainable Development Unit in 2008 and began that year to conduct assessments of the NHS’s carbon footprint. The NHS also identified its biggest culprits: Of the 2019 footprint, with emissions totaling 25 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, 62 percent came from the supply chain, 24 percent from the direct delivery of care, 10 percent from staff commute and patient and visitor travel, and 4 percent from private health and care services commissioned by the NHS. From 1990 to 2019, the NHS has reduced its emission of carbon dioxide equivalents by 26 percent, mostly due to the switch to renewable energy for heat and power. Meanwhile, the NHS has encouraged health clinics in the U.K. to install wind generators or photovoltaics that convert light to electricity -- relatively quick ways to decarbonize buildings in the health sector.
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S. “We are already seeing patients with symptoms from climate change, such as worsened respiratory symptoms from increased wildfires and poor air quality in California,” write Thomas B. Newman, a pediatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and UCSF clinical research coordinator Daisy Valdivieso. “Because of the enormous health threat posed by climate change, health professionals should mobilize support for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.” They believe “the most direct place to start is to approach the low-lying fruit: reducing healthcare waste and overuse.”
In addition to resulting in waste, the plastic in hospitals ultimately harms patients, who may be even more vulnerable to the effects due to their health conditions. Microplastics have been detected in most humans, and on average, a human ingests five grams of microplastic per week. Newman and Valdivieso refer to the American Board of Internal Medicine's Choosing Wisely program as one of many initiatives that identify and publicize options for “safely doing less” as a strategy to reduce unnecessary healthcare practices, and in turn, reduce cost, resource use, and ultimately reduce medical harm.
A few U.S. clinics are pioneers in transitioning to clean energy sources. In Wisconsin, the nonprofit Gundersen Health network became the first hospital to cut its reliance on petroleum by switching to locally produced green energy in 2015, and it saved $1.2 million per year in the process. Kaiser Permanente eliminated its 800,000 ton carbon footprint through energy efficiency and purchasing carbon offsets, reaching a balance between carbon emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere in 2020, the first U.S. health system to do so.
Cleveland Clinic has pledged to join Kaiser in becoming carbon neutral by 2027. Realizing that 80 percent of its 2008 carbon emissions came from electricity consumption, the Clinic started switching to renewable energy and installing solar panels, and it has invested in researching recyclable products and packaging. The Clinic’s sustainability report outlines several strategies for producing less waste, such as reusing cases for sterilizing instruments, cutting back on materials that can’t be recycled, and putting pressure on vendors to reduce product packaging.
The Charité Berlin, Europe’s biggest university hospital, has also announced its goal to become carbon neutral. Its sustainability managers have begun to identify the biggest carbon culprits in its operations. “We’ve already reduced CO2 emissions by 21 percent since 2016,” says Simon Batt-Nauerz, the director of infrastructure and sustainability.
The hospital still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, as much as a city with 10,000 residents, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees, who can get their bikes repaired for free in one of the Charité-operated bike workshops. Another program targets doctors’ and nurses’ scrubs, which cause more than 200 tons of CO2 during manufacturing and cleaning. The staff is currently testing lighter, more sustainable scrubs made from recycled cellulose that is grown regionally and requires 80 percent less land use and 30 percent less water.
The Charité hospital in Berlin still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees.
Anesthesiologist Susanne Koch spearheads sustainability efforts in anesthesiology at the Charité. She says that up to a third of hospital waste comes from surgery rooms. To reduce medical waste, she recommends what she calls the 5 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink, Research. “In medicine, people don’t question the use of plastic because of safety concerns,” she says. “Nobody wants to be sued because something is reused. However, it is possible to reduce plastic and other materials safely.”
For instance, she says, typical surgery kits are single-use and contain more supplies than are actually needed, and the entire kit is routinely thrown out after the surgery. “Up to 20 percent of materials in a surgery room aren’t used but will be discarded,” Koch says. One solution could be smaller kits, she explains, and another would be to recycle the plastic. Another example is breathing tubes. “When they became scarce during the pandemic, studies showed that they can be used seven days instead of 24 hours without increased bacteria load when we change the filters regularly,” Koch says, and wonders, “What else can we reuse?”
In the Netherlands, TU Delft researchers Tim Horeman and Bart van Straten designed a method to melt down the blue polypropylene wrapping paper that keeps medical instruments sterile, so that the material can be turned it into new medical devices. Currently, more than a million kilos of the blue paper are used in Dutch hospitals every year. A growing number of Dutch hospitals are adopting this approach.
Another common practice that’s ripe for improvement is the use of a certain plastic, called PVC, in hospital equipment such as blood bags, tubes and masks. Because of its toxic components, PVC is almost never recycled in the U.S., but University of Michigan researchers Danielle Fagnani and Anne McNeil have discovered a chemical process that can break it down into material that could be incorporated back into production. This could be a step toward a circular economy “that accounts for resource inputs and emissions throughout a product’s life cycle, including extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, transport, use and reuse, and disposal,” as medical experts have proposed. “It’s a failure of humanity to have created these amazing materials which have improved our lives in many ways, but at the same time to be so shortsighted that we didn’t think about what to do with the waste,” McNeil said in a press release.
Susanne Koch puts it more succinctly: “What’s the point if we save patients while killing the planet?”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI