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."
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
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”