Last week, top experts on HIV/AIDS convened in Amsterdam for the 22nd International AIDS conference, and the mood was not great. Even though remarkable advances in treating HIV have led to effective management for many people living with the disease, and its overall incidence has declined, there are signs that the virus could make a troubling comeback.
"In a perfect world, we'd get a vaccine like the HPV vaccine that was 100% effective and I think that's ultimately what we're going to strive for."
Growing resistance to current HIV drugs, a population boom in Sub-Saharan Africa, and insufficient public health resources are all poised to contribute to a second AIDS pandemic, according to published reports.
Already, the virus is nowhere near under control. Though the infection rate has declined 47 percent since its peak in 1996, last year 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV around the world, and 37 million people are currently living with it. About 1 million people die of AIDS every year, making it the fourth biggest killer in low-income countries.
Leapsmag Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff reached out to Dr. Carl Dieffenbach, Director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to find out what the U.S. government is doing to develop an HIV vaccine and cure. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is the general trajectory of research in HIV/AIDS today?
We can break it down to two specific domains: focus on treatment and cure, and prevention.
Let's start with people living with HIV. This is the area where we've had the most success over the past 30 plus years, because we've taken a disease that was essentially a death sentence and converted it through the development of medications to a treatable chronic disease.
The second half of this equation is, can we cure or create a functional cure for people living with HIV? And the definition of functional cure would be the absence of circulating virus in the body in the absence of therapy. Essentially the human body would control the HIV infection within the individual. That is a much more, very early research stage of discovery. There are some interesting signals but it's still in need of innovation.
I'd like to make a contrast between what we are able to do with a virus called Hepatitis C and what we can do with the virus HIV. Hep C, with 12 weeks of highly active antiviral therapy, we can cure 95 to 100% of infections. With HIV, we cannot do that. The difference is the behavior of the virus. HIV integrates into the host's genome. Hep C is an RNA virus that stays in the cytoplasm of the cell and never gets into the DNA.
On the prevention side, we have two strategies: The first is pre-exposure prophylaxis. Then of course, we have the need for a safe, effective and durable HIV vaccine, which is a very active area of discovery. We've had some spectacular success with RV144, and we're following up on that success, and other vaccines are in the pipeline. Whether they are sufficient to provide the level of durability and activity is not yet clear, but progress has been made and there's still the need for innovation.
The most important breakthrough in the past 5 to 10 years has been the discovery of broad neutralizing monoclonal antibodies. They are proteins that the body makes, and not everybody who's HIV infected makes these antibodies, but we've been able to clone out these antibodies from certain individuals that are highly potent, and when used either singly or in combination, can truly neutralize the vast majority of HIV strains. Can those be used by themselves as treatment or as prevention? That is the question.
Can you explain more about RV144 and why you consider it a success?
Prior to RV144, we had run a number of vaccine studies and nothing had ever statistically shown to be protective. RV144 showed a level of efficacy of about 31 percent, which was statistically significant. Not enough to take forward into other studies, but it allowed us to generate some ideas about why this worked, go back to the drawing board, and redesign the immunogens to optimize and test the next generation for this vaccine. We just recently opened that new study, the follow-up to RV144, called HVTN702. That's up and enrolling and moving along quite nicely.
Carl Dieffenbach, Director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Where is that enrolling?
Primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa.
When will you expect to see signals from that?
Between 2020 and 2021. It's complicated because the signal also takes into account the durability. After a certain time of vaccination, we're going to count up endpoints.
How would you explain the main scientific obstacle in the way of creating a very efficacious HIV vaccine?
Simply put, it's the black box of the human immune system. HIV employs a shield technology, and the virus is constantly changing its shield to protect itself, but there are some key parts of the virus that it cannot shield, so that's the trick – to be able to target that.
So, you're trying to find the Achilles' Heel of the virus?
Exactly. To make a flu vaccine or a Zika vaccine or even an Ebola vaccine, the virus is a little bit more forthcoming with the target. In HIV, the virus does everything in its power to hide the target, so we're dealing with a well-adapted [adversary] that actively avoids neutralization. That's the scientific challenge we face.
On the vaccine side, we are currently performing, in collaboration with partners, two vaccine trials – HVTN702, which we talked about, and another one called 705. If either of those are highly successful, they would both require an additional phase 3 clinical trial before they could be licensed. This is an important but not final step. Then we would move into scale up to global vaccination. Those conversations have begun but they are not very far along and need additional attention.
What percent of people in the current trials would need to be protected to move on to phase 3?
Between 50 and 60 percent. That comes with this question of durability: how long does the vaccine last?
It also includes, can we simplify the vaccine regimen? The vaccines we're testing right now are multiple shots over a period of time. Can we get more like the polio or smallpox vaccine, a shot with a booster down the road?
We're dealing with sovereign nations. We're doing this in partnership, not as helicopter-type researchers.
If these current trials pan out, do you think kids in the developed world will end up getting an HIV vaccine one day? Or just people in-at risk areas?
That's a good question. I don't have an answer to that. In a perfect world, we'd get a vaccine like the HPV vaccine that was 100% effective and I think that's ultimately what we're going to strive for. That's where that second or third generation of vaccines that trigger broad neutralizing antibodies come in.
With any luck at all, globally, the combination of antiretroviral treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis and other prevention and treatment strategies will lower the incidence rate where the HIV pandemic continues to wane, and we will then be able to either target the vaccine or roll it out in a way that is both cost effective and destigmatizing.
And also, what does the country want? We're dealing with sovereign nations. We're doing this in partnership, not as helicopter-type researchers.
How close do you think we are globally to eradicating HIV infections?
Eradication's a big word. It means no new infections. We are nowhere close to eradicating HIV. Whether or not we can continue to bend the curve on the epidemic and have less infections so that the total number of people continues to decline over time, I think we can achieve that if we had the political will. And that's not just the U.S. political will. That's the will of the world. We have the tools, albeit they're not perfect. But that's where a vaccine that is efficacious and simple to deliver could be the gamechanger.
On the evening of November 28, 1942, more than 1,000 revelers from the Boston College-Holy Cross football game jammed into the Cocoanut Grove, Boston's oldest nightclub. When a spark from faulty wiring accidently ignited an artificial palm tree, the packed nightspot, which was only designed to accommodate about 500 people, was quickly engulfed in flames. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of people were trapped inside, with most exit doors locked. Bodies piled up by the only open entrance, jamming the exits, and 490 people ultimately died in the worst fire in the country in forty years.
"People couldn't get out," says Dr. Kenneth Marshall, a retired plastic surgeon in Boston and president of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee. "It was a tragedy of mammoth proportions."
Within a half an hour of the start of the blaze, the Red Cross mobilized more than five hundred volunteers in what one newspaper called a "Rehearsal for Possible Blitz." The mayor of Boston imposed martial law. More than 300 victims—many of whom subsequently died--were taken to Boston City Hospital in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds, while Massachusetts General Hospital admitted 114 victims in two hours. In the hospitals, 220 victims clung precariously to life, in agonizing pain from massive burns, their bodies ravaged by infection.
The scene of the fire.
Boston Public Library
Tragic Losses Prompted Revolutionary Leaps<p>But there is a silver lining: this horrific disaster prompted dramatic changes in safety regulations to prevent another catastrophe of this magnitude and led to the development of medical techniques that eventually saved millions of lives. It transformed burn care treatment and the use of plasma on burn victims, but most importantly, it introduced to the public a new wonder drug that revolutionized medicine, midwifed the birth of the modern pharmaceutical industry, and nearly doubled life expectancy, from 48 years at the turn of the 20<sup>th</sup> century to 78 years in the post-World War II years.</p><p>The devastating grief of the survivors also led to the first published study of post-traumatic stress disorder by pioneering psychiatrist Alexandra Adler, daughter of famed Viennese psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who was a student of Freud. Dr. Adler studied the anxiety and depression that followed this catastrophe, according to the <em>New York Times</em>, and "later applied her findings to the treatment World War II veterans."</p><p>Dr. Ken Marshall is intimately familiar with the lingering psychological trauma of enduring such a disaster. His mother, an Irish immigrant and a nurse in the surgical wards at Boston City Hospital, was on duty that cold Thanksgiving weekend night, and didn't come home for four days. "For years afterward, she'd wake up screaming in the middle of the night," recalls Dr. Marshall, who was four years old at the time. "Seeing all those bodies lined up in neat rows across the City Hospital's parking lot, still in their evening clothes. It was always on her mind and memories of the horrors plagued her for the rest of her life."</p><p>The sheer magnitude of casualties prompted overwhelmed physicians to try experimental new procedures that were later successfully used to treat thousands of battlefield casualties. Instead of cutting off blisters and using dyes and tannic acid to treat burned tissues, which can harden the skin, they applied gauze coated with petroleum jelly. Doctors also refined the formula for using plasma--the fluid portion of blood and a medical technology that was just four years old--to replenish bodily liquids that evaporated because of the loss of the protective covering of skin.</p>
From Forgotten Lab Experiment to Wonder Drug<p>In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the curative powers of penicillin, which promised to eradicate infectious pathogens that killed millions every year. But the road to mass producing enough of the highly unstable mold was littered with seemingly unsurmountable obstacles and it remained a forgotten laboratory curiosity for over a decade. But Fleming never gave up and penicillin's eventual rescue from obscurity was a landmark in scientific history. </p><p>In 1940, a group at Oxford University, funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, isolated enough penicillin to test it on twenty-five mice, which had been infected with lethal doses of streptococci. Its therapeutic effects were miraculous—the untreated mice died within hours, while the treated ones played merrily in their cages, undisturbed. Subsequent tests on a handful of patients, who were brought back from the brink of death, confirmed that penicillin was indeed a wonder drug. But Britain was then being ravaged by the German Luftwaffe during the Blitz, and there were simply no resources to devote to penicillin during the Nazi onslaught.</p><p>In June of 1941, two of the Oxford researchers, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, embarked on a clandestine mission to enlist American aid. Samples of the temperamental mold were stored in their coats. By October, the Roosevelt Administration had recruited four companies—Merck, Squibb, Pfizer and Lederle—to team up in a massive, top-secret development program. Merck, which had more experience with fermentation procedures, swiftly pulled away from the pack and every milligram they produced was zealously hoarded.</p><p>After the nightclub fire, the government ordered Merck to dispatch to Boston whatever supplies of penicillin that they could spare and to refine any crude penicillin broth brewing in Merck's fermentation vats. After working in round-the-clock relays over the course of three days, on the evening of December 1<sup>st</sup>, 1942, a refrigerated truck containing thirty-two liters of injectable penicillin left Merck's Rahway, New Jersey plant. It was accompanied by a convoy of police escorts through four states before arriving in the pre-dawn hours at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dozens of people were rescued from near-certain death in the first public demonstration of the powers of the antibiotic, and the existence of penicillin could no longer be kept secret from inquisitive reporters and an exultant public. The next day, the <em>Boston Globe</em> called it "priceless" and <em>Time</em> magazine dubbed it a "wonder drug."</p><p>Within fourteen months, penicillin production escalated exponentially, churning out enough to save the lives of thousands of soldiers, including many from the Normandy invasion. And in October 1945, just weeks after the Japanese surrender ended World War II, Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. But penicillin didn't just save lives—it helped build some of the most innovative medical and scientific companies in history, including Merck, Pfizer, Glaxo and Sandoz. </p><p>"Every war has given us a new medical advance," concludes Marshall. "And penicillin was <em>the</em> great scientific advance of World War II."</p>
Conner Curran was diagnosed with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy in 2015 when he was four years old. It's the most severe form of the genetic disease, with a nearly inevitable progression toward total paralysis. Many Duchenne's patients die in their teens; the average lifespan is 26.
But Conner, who is now 10, has experienced some astonishing improvements in recent years. He can now walk for more than two miles at a time – an impossible journey when he was younger.
In 2018, Conner became the very first patient to receive gene therapy specific to treating Duchenne's. In the initial clinical trial of nine children, nearly 80 percent reacted positively to the treatment). A larger-scale stage 3 clinical trial is currently underway, with initial results expected next year.
Gene therapy involves altering the genes in an individual's cells to stop or treat a disease. Such a procedure may be performed by adding new gene material to existing cells, or editing the defective genes to improve their functionality.
Conner Curran holding a football post gene therapy treatment.
Courtesy of the Curran family