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."
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. 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 and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby