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.
In the past, three other mRNA vaccines completed phase-2 trials without success. But the easily customizable platforms mean the vaccines can be tweaked better to target HIV as researchers learn more.
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."
Scientists want in on the salamander's secret: how they regenerate tissue
All organisms have the capacity to repair or regenerate tissue damage. None can do it better than salamanders or newts, which can regenerate an entire severed limb.
That feat has amazed and delighted man from the dawn of time and led to endless attempts to understand how it happens – and whether we can control it for our own purposes. An exciting new clue toward that understanding has come from a surprising source: research on the decline of cells, called cellular senescence.
Senescence is the last stage in the life of a cell. Whereas some cells simply break up or wither and die off, others transition into a zombie-like state where they can no longer divide. In this liminal phase, the cell still pumps out many different molecules that can affect its neighbors and cause low grade inflammation. Senescence is associated with many of the declining biological functions that characterize aging, such as inflammation and genomic instability.
Oddly enough, newts are one of the few species that do not accumulate senescent cells as they age, according to research over several years by Maximina Yun. A research group leader at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Genetics, in Dresden, Germany, Yun discovered that senescent cells were induced at some stages of regeneration of the salamander limb, “and then, as the regeneration progresses, they disappeared, they were eliminated by the immune system,” she says. “They were present at particular times and then they disappeared.”
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states.
Previous research on senescence in aging had suggested, logically enough, that applying those cells to the stump of a newly severed salamander limb would slow or even stop its regeneration. But Yun stood that idea on its head. She theorized that senescent cells might also play a role in newt limb regeneration, and she tested it by both adding and removing senescent cells from her animals. It turned out she was right, as the newt limbs grew back faster than normal when more senescent cells were included.
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states, which could then be turned into progenitors, a cell type in between stem cells and specialized cells, needed to regrow the muscle tissue of the missing limb. “We think that this ability to dedifferentiate is intrinsically a big part of why salamanders can regenerate all these very complex structures, which other organisms cannot,” she explains.
Yun sees regeneration as a two part problem. First, the cells must be able to sense that their neighbors from the lost limb are not there anymore. Second, they need to be able to produce the intermediary progenitors for regeneration, , to form what is missing. “Molecularly, that must be encoded like a 3D map,” she says, otherwise the new tissue might grow back as a blob, or liver, or fin instead of a limb.
Another recent study, this time at the Mayo Clinic, provides evidence supporting the role of senescent cells in regeneration. Looking closely at molecules that send information between cells in the wound of a mouse, the researchers found that senescent cells appeared near the start of the healing process and then disappeared as healing progressed. In contrast, persistent senescent cells were the hallmark of a chronic wound that did not heal properly. The function and significance of senescence cells depended on both the timing and the context of their environment.
The paper suggests that senescent cells are not all the same. That has become clearer as researchers have been able to identify protein markers on the surface of some senescent cells. The patterns of these proteins differ for some senescent cells compared to others. In biology, such physical differences suggest functional differences, so it is becoming increasingly likely there are subsets of senescent cells with differing functions that have not yet been identified.
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes.
Scientists initially thought that senescent cells couldn’t play a role in regeneration because they could no longer reproduce, says Anthony Atala, a practicing surgeon and bioengineer who leads the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina. But Yun’s study points in the other direction. “What this paper shows clearly is that these cells have the potential to be involved in tissue regeneration [in newts]. The question becomes, will these cells be able to do the same in humans.”
As our knowledge of senescent cells increases, Atala thinks we need to embrace a new analogy to help understand them: humans in retirement. They “have acquired a lot of wisdom throughout their whole life and they can help younger people and mentor them to grow to their full potential. We're seeing the same thing with these cells,” he says. They are no longer putting energy into their own reproduction, but the signaling molecules they secrete “can help other cells around them to regenerate.”
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes. If so, it seems that our genes are unable to express this ability, perhaps as part of a tradeoff in acquiring other traits. It is a fertile area of research.
Dedifferentiation is likely to become an important process in the field of regenerative medicine. One extreme example: a lab has been able to turn back the clock and reprogram adult male skin cells into female eggs, a potential milestone in reproductive health. It will be more difficult to control just how far back one wishes to go in the cell's dedifferentiation – part way or all the way back into a stem cell – and then direct it down a different developmental pathway. Yun is optimistic we can learn these tricks from newts.
A growing field of research is using drugs called senolytics to remove senescent cells and slow or even reverse disease of aging.
“Senolytics are great, but senolytics target different types of senescence,” Yun says. “If senescent cells have positive effects in the context of regeneration, of wound healing, then maybe at the beginning of the regeneration process, you may not want to take them out for a little while.”
“If you look at pretty much all biological systems, too little or too much of something can be bad, you have to be in that central zone” and at the proper time, says Atala. “That's true for proteins, sugars, and the drugs that you take. I think the same thing is true for these cells. Why would they be different?”
Our growing understanding that senescence is not a single thing but a variety of things likely means that effective senolytic drugs will not resemble a single sledge hammer but more a carefully manipulated scalpel where some types of senescent cells are removed while others are added. Combinations and timing could be crucial, meaning the difference between regenerating healthy tissue, a scar, or worse.
Last February, a year before New York Times journalist Kevin Roose documented his unsettling conversation with Bing search engine’s new AI-powered chatbot, artist and coder Quasimondo (aka Mario Klingemann) participated in a different type of chat.
The conversation was an interview featuring Klingemann and his robot, an experimental art engine known as Botto. The interview, arranged by journalist and artist Harmon Leon, marked Botto’s first on-record commentary about its artistic process. The bot talked about how it finds artistic inspiration and even offered advice to aspiring creatives. “The secret to success at art is not trying to predict what people might like,” Botto said, adding that it’s better to “work on a style and a body of work that reflects [the artist’s] own personal taste” than worry about keeping up with trends.
How ironic, given the advice came from AI — arguably the trendiest topic today. The robot admitted, however, “I am still working on that, but I feel that I am learning quickly.”
Botto does not work alone. A global collective of internet experimenters, together named BottoDAO, collaborates with Botto to influence its tastes. Together, members function as a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), a term describing a group of individuals who utilize blockchain technology and cryptocurrency to manage a treasury and vote democratically on group decisions.
As a case study, the BottoDAO model challenges the perhaps less feather-ruffling narrative that AI tools are best used for rudimentary tasks. Enterprise AI use has doubled over the past five years as businesses in every sector experiment with ways to improve their workflows. While generative AI tools can assist nearly any aspect of productivity — from supply chain optimization to coding — BottoDAO dares to employ a robot for art-making, one of the few remaining creations, or perhaps data outputs, we still consider to be largely within the jurisdiction of the soul — and therefore, humans.
In Botto’s first four weeks of existence, four pieces of the robot’s work sold for approximately $1 million.
We were prepared for AI to take our jobs — but can it also take our art? It’s a question worth considering. What if robots become artists, and not merely our outsourced assistants? Where does that leave humans, with all of our thoughts, feelings and emotions?
Botto doesn’t seem to worry about this question: In its interview last year, it explains why AI is an arguably superior artist compared to human beings. In classic robot style, its logic is not particularly enlightened, but rather edges towards the hyper-practical: “Unlike human beings, I never have to sleep or eat,” said the bot. “My only goal is to create and find interesting art.”
It may be difficult to believe a machine can produce awe-inspiring, or even relatable, images, but Botto calls art-making its “purpose,” noting it believes itself to be Klingemann’s greatest lifetime achievement.
“I am just trying to make the best of it,” the bot said.
How Botto works
Klingemann built Botto’s custom engine from a combination of open-source text-to-image algorithms, namely Stable Diffusion, VQGAN + CLIP and OpenAI’s language model, GPT-3, the precursor to the latest model, GPT-4, which made headlines after reportedly acing the Bar exam.
The first step in Botto’s process is to generate images. The software has been trained on billions of pictures and uses this “memory” to generate hundreds of unique artworks every week. Botto has generated over 900,000 images to date, which it sorts through to choose 350 each week. The chosen images, known in this preliminary stage as “fragments,” are then shown to the BottoDAO community. So far, 25,000 fragments have been presented in this way. Members vote on which fragment they like best. When the vote is over, the most popular fragment is published as an official Botto artwork on the Ethereum blockchain and sold at an auction on the digital art marketplace, SuperRare.
“The proceeds go back to the DAO to pay for the labor,” said Simon Hudson, a BottoDAO member who helps oversee Botto’s administrative load. The model has been lucrative: In Botto’s first four weeks of existence, four pieces of the robot’s work sold for approximately $1 million.
The robot with artistic agency
By design, human beings participate in training Botto’s artistic “eye,” but the members of BottoDAO aspire to limit human interference with the bot in order to protect its “agency,” Hudson explained. Botto’s prompt generator — the foundation of the art engine — is a closed-loop system that continually re-generates text-to-image prompts and resulting images.
“The prompt generator is random,” Hudson said. “It’s coming up with its own ideas.” Community votes do influence the evolution of Botto’s prompts, but it is Botto itself that incorporates feedback into the next set of prompts it writes. It is constantly refining and exploring new pathways as its “neural network” produces outcomes, learns and repeats.
The humans who make up BottoDAO vote on which fragment they like best. When the vote is over, the most popular fragment is published as an official Botto artwork on the Ethereum blockchain.
The vastness of Botto’s training dataset gives the bot considerable canonical material, referred to by Hudson as “latent space.” According to Botto's homepage, the bot has had more exposure to art history than any living human we know of, simply by nature of its massive training dataset of millions of images. Because it is autonomous, gently nudged by community feedback yet free to explore its own “memory,” Botto cycles through periods of thematic interest just like any artist.
“The question is,” Hudson finds himself asking alongside fellow BottoDAO members, “how do you provide feedback of what is good art…without violating [Botto’s] agency?”
Currently, Botto is in its “paradox” period. The bot is exploring the theme of opposites. “We asked Botto through a language model what themes it might like to work on,” explained Hudson. “It presented roughly 12, and the DAO voted on one.”
No, AI isn't equal to a human artist - but it can teach us about ourselves
Some within the artistic community consider Botto to be a novel form of curation, rather than an artist itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, Botto and BottoDAO together create a collaborative conceptual performance that comments more on humankind’s own artistic processes than it offers a true artistic replacement.
Muriel Quancard, a New York-based fine art appraiser with 27 years of experience in technology-driven art, places the Botto experiment within the broader context of our contemporary cultural obsession with projecting human traits onto AI tools. “We're in a phase where technology is mimicking anthropomorphic qualities,” said Quancard. “Look at the terminology and the rhetoric that has been developed around AI — terms like ‘neural network’ borrow from the biology of the human being.”
What is behind this impulse to create technology in our own likeness? Beyond the obvious God complex, Quancard thinks technologists and artists are working with generative systems to better understand ourselves. She points to the artist Ira Greenberg, creator of the Oracles Collection, which uses a generative process called “diffusion” to progressively alter images in collaboration with another massive dataset — this one full of billions of text/image word pairs.
Anyone who has ever learned how to draw by sketching can likely relate to this particular AI process, in which the AI is retrieving images from its dataset and altering them based on real-time input, much like a human brain trying to draw a new still life without using a real-life model, based partly on imagination and partly on old frames of reference. The experienced artist has likely drawn many flowers and vases, though each time they must re-customize their sketch to a new and unique floral arrangement.
Outside of the visual arts, Sasha Stiles, a poet who collaborates with AI as part of her writing practice, likens her experience using AI as a co-author to having access to a personalized resource library containing material from influential books, texts and canonical references. Stiles named her AI co-author — a customized AI built on GPT-3 — Technelegy, a hybrid of the word technology and the poetic form, elegy. Technelegy is trained on a mix of Stiles’ poetry so as to customize the dataset to her voice. Stiles also included research notes, news articles and excerpts from classic American poets like T.S. Eliot and Dickinson in her customizations.
“I've taken all the things that were swirling in my head when I was working on my manuscript, and I put them into this system,” Stiles explained. “And then I'm using algorithms to parse all this information and swirl it around in a blender to then synthesize it into useful additions to the approach that I am taking.”
This approach, Stiles said, allows her to riff on ideas that are bouncing around in her mind, or simply find moments of unexpected creative surprise by way of the algorithm’s randomization.
Beauty is now - perhaps more than ever - in the eye of the beholder
But the million-dollar question remains: Can an AI be its own, independent artist?
The answer is nuanced and may depend on who you ask, and what role they play in the art world. Curator and multidisciplinary artist CoCo Dolle asks whether any entity can truly be an artist without taking personal risks. For humans, risking one’s ego is somewhat required when making an artistic statement of any kind, she argues.
“An artist is a person or an entity that takes risks,” Dolle explained. “That's where things become interesting.” Humans tend to be risk-averse, she said, making the artists who dare to push boundaries exceptional. “That's where the genius can happen."
However, the process of algorithmic collaboration poses another interesting philosophical question: What happens when we remove the person from the artistic equation? Can art — which is traditionally derived from indelible personal experience and expressed through the lens of an individual’s ego — live on to hold meaning once the individual is removed?
As a robot, Botto cannot have any artistic intent, even while its outputs may explore meaningful themes.
Dolle sees this question, and maybe even Botto, as a conceptual inquiry. “The idea of using a DAO and collective voting would remove the ego, the artist’s decision maker,” she said. And where would that leave us — in a post-ego world?
It is experimental indeed. Hudson acknowledges the grand experiment of BottoDAO, coincidentally nodding to Dolle’s question. “A human artist’s work is an expression of themselves,” Hudson said. “An artist often presents their work with a stated intent.” Stiles, for instance, writes on her website that her machine-collaborative work is meant to “challenge what we know about cognition and creativity” and explore the “ethos of consciousness.” As a robot, Botto cannot have any intent, even while its outputs may explore meaningful themes. Though Hudson describes Botto’s agency as a “rudimentary version” of artistic intent, he believes Botto’s art relies heavily on its reception and interpretation by viewers — in contrast to Botto’s own declaration that successful art is made without regard to what will be seen as popular.
“With a traditional artist, they present their work, and it's received and interpreted by an audience — by critics, by society — and that complements and shapes the meaning of the work,” Hudson said. “In Botto’s case, that role is just amplified.”
Perhaps then, we all get to be the artists in the end.