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.
In late March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in the United States, David Fajgenbaum, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, devised a 10-day challenge for his lab: they would sift through 1,000 recently published scientific papers documenting cases of the deadly virus from around the world, pluck out the names of any drugs used in an attempt to cure patients, and track the treatments and their outcomes in a database.
Before late 2019, no one had ever had to treat this exact disease before, which meant all treatments would be trial and error. Fajgenbaum, a pioneering researcher in the field of drug repurposing—which prioritizes finding novel uses for existing drugs, rather than arduously and expensively developing new ones for each new disease—knew that physicians around the world would be embarking on an experimental journey, the scale of which would be unprecedented. His intention was to briefly document the early days of this potentially illuminating free-for-all, as a sidebar to his primary field of research on a group of lymph node disorders called Castleman disease. But now, 11 months and 29,000 scientific papers later, he and his team of 22 are still going strong.
On a Personal Mission<p>In the science and medical world, Fajgenbaum lives a dual existence: he is both researcher and subject, physician and patient. In July 2010, when he was a healthy and physically fit 25-year-old finishing medical school, he began living through what would become a recurring, unprovoked, and overzealous immune response that repeatedly almost killed him.</p><p>His lymph nodes were inflamed; his liver, kidneys, and bone marrow were faltering; and he was dead tired all the time. At first his doctors mistook his mysterious illness for lymphoma, but his inflamed lymph nodes were merely a red herring. A month after his initial hospitalization, pathologists at Mayo Clinic finally diagnosed him with idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease—a particularly ruthless form of a class of lymph node disorders that doesn't just attack one part of the body, but many, and has no known cause. It's a rare diagnosis within an already rare set of disorders. Only about 1,500 Americans a year receive the same diagnosis. </p><p>Without many options for treatment, Fajgenbaum underwent recurring rounds of chemotherapy. Each time, the treatment would offer temporary respite from Castleman symptoms, but bring the full spate of chemotherapy side effects. And it wasn't a sustainable treatment for the long haul. Regularly dousing a person's cells in unmitigated toxicity was about as elegant a solution to Fajgenbaum's disease as bulldozing a house in response to a toaster fire. The fire might go out (though not necessarily), but the house would be destroyed.</p><p>A swirl of exasperation and doggedness finally propelled Fajgenbaum to take on a crucial question himself: Among all of the already FDA-approved drugs on the market, was there something out there, labeled for another use, that could beat back Castleman disease and that he could tolerate long-term? After months of research, he discovered the answer: sirolimus, a drug normally prescribed to patients receiving a kidney transplant, could be used to suppress his overactive immune system with few known side effects to boot.</p><p>Fajgenbaum became hellbent on devoting his practice and research to making similar breakthroughs for others. He founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, to coordinate the research of others studying this bewildering disease, and directs a laboratory consumed with studying cytokine storms—out-of-control immune responses characterized by the body's release of cytokines, proteins that the immune system secretes and uses to communicate with and direct other cells. </p><p>In the spring of 2020, when cytokine storms emerged as a hallmark of the most severe and deadly cases of COVID-19, Fajgenbaum's ears perked up. Although SARS-CoV-2 itself was novel, Fajgenbaum already had almost a decade of experience battling the most severe biological forces it brought. Only this time, he thought, it might actually be easier to pinpoint a treatment—unlike Castleman disease, which has no known cause, at least here a virus was clearly the instigator. </p>
Thinking Beyond COVID<p>The week of March 13, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Fajgenbaum found himself hoping that someone would make the same connection and apply the research to COVID. "Then like a minute later I was like, 'Why am I hoping that someone, somewhere, either follows our footsteps, or has a similar background to us? Maybe we just need to do it," he says. And the CORONA Project was born—first as a 10-day exercise, and later as the robust, interactive tool it now is. </p><p>All of the 400 treatments in the CORONA database are examples of repurposed drugs, or off-label uses: physicians are prescribing drugs to treat COVID that have been approved for a different disease. There are no bonafide COVID treatments, only inferences. The goal for people like Fajgenbaum and Stone is to identify potential treatments for further study and eventual official approval, so that physicians can treat the disease with a playbook in hand. When it works, drug repurposing opens up a way to move quickly: A range of treatments could be available to patients within just a few years of a totally new virus entering our reality compared with the 12 - 19 years new drug development takes.</p><p>"Companies for many decades have explored the use of their products for not just a single indication but often for many indications," says Stone. "'Supplemental approvals' are all essentially examples of drug repurposing, we just didn't call it that. The challenge, I think, is to explore those opportunities more comprehensively and systematically to really try to understand the full breadth of potential activity of any drug or molecule."</p>
The left column shows the path of a repurposed drug, and on the right is the path of a newly discovered and developed drug.
Cures Within Reach
A Confounding Virus<p>The FDA declined to comment on what drugs it was fast-tracking for trials, but Fajgenbaum says that based on the CORONA Project's data, which includes data from smaller trials that have already taken place, he feels there are three drugs that seem the most clearly and broadly promising for large-scale studies. Among them are <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30503-8/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>dexamethasone</u></a>, which is a steroid with anti-inflammatory effects, and <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-drug-combination-treatment-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>baricitinib</u></a>, a rheumatoid arthritis drug, both of which have enabled the sickest COVID-19 patients to bounce back by suppressing their immune systems. The third most clearly promising drug is <a href="https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/full-dose-blood-thinners-decreased-need-life-support-improved-outcome-hospitalized-covid-19-patients" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>heparin</u></a>, a blood thinner, which a recent trial showed to be most helpful when administered at a full dose, more so than at a small, preventative dose. (On the flipside, Fajgenbaum says "it's a little sad" that in the database you can see hydroxychloroquine is still the most-prescribed drug being tried as a COVID treatment around the world, despite over the summer being <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2021801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>debunked</u></a> widely as an effective treatment, and continuously since then.)</p><p>One of the confounding attributes of SARS-CoV-2 is its ability to cause such a huge spectrum of outcomes. It's unlikely a silver bullet treatment will emerge under that reality, so the database also helps surface drugs that seem most promising for a specific population. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2773108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Fluvoxamine</u></a>, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, showed promise in the recovery of outpatients—those who were sick, but not severely enough to be hospitalized. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2772185" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Tocilizumab</u></a>, which was actually developed for Castleman disease, the disease Fajgenbaum is managing, was initially written off as a COVID treatment because it failed to benefit large portions of hospitalized patients, but now seems to be effective if used on intensive care unit patients within 24 hours of admission—these are some of the sickest patients with the highest risk of dying. </p><p>Other than fluvoxamine, most of the drugs labeled as promising do skew toward targeting hospitalized patients, more than outpatients. One reason, Fajgenbaum says, is that "if you're in a hospital it's very easy to give you a drug and to track you, and there are very objective measurements as to whether you die, you progress to a ventilator, etc." Tracking outpatients is far more difficult, especially when folks have been routinely asked to stay home, quarantine, and free up hospital resources if they're experiencing only mild symptoms. </p><p>But the other reason for the skew is because COVID is very unlike most other diseases in terms of the human immune response the virus triggers. For example, if oncology treatments show some benefit to people with the highest risk of dying, then they usually work extremely well if administered in the earlier stages of a cancer diagnosis. Across many diseases, this dialing backward is a standard approach to identifying promising treatments. With COVID, all of that reasoning has proven moot. </p><p>As we've seen over the last year, COVID cases often start as asymptomatic, and remain that way for days, indicating the body is mounting an incredibly weak immune response initially. Then, between days five and 14, as if trying to make up for lost time, the immune system overcompensates by launching a major inflammatory response, which in the sickest patient can lead to the type of cytokine storms that helped Fajgenbaum realize his years of Castleman research might be useful during this public health crisis. Because of this phased response, you can't apply the same treatment logic to all cases.</p><p>"In COVID, drugs that work late tend to not work if given early, and drugs that work early tend to not work if given late," says Fajgenbaum. "Generally this … is not a commonplace thing for a virus." </p>
Thursday, March 11th, 2021 at 12:30pm - 1:45pm EST
On the one-year anniversary of the global declaration of the pandemic, this virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines. Planned topics include the effect of the new circulating variants on the vaccines, what we know so far about transmission dynamics post-vaccination, how individuals can behave post-vaccination, the myths of "good" and "bad" vaccines as more alternatives come on board, and more. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
SPEAKERS:<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://leaps.org/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY3Mzc4NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjYwNjU4NX0.Tdrh5pze5P4XxgiJK3J4JFrsrijfabIzNJz-AATghDE/image.jpg?width=534&coordinates=365%2C3%2C299%2C559&height=462" id="87554" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b6c7311be7aec25807f9af19b683bf1d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="534" data-height="462" />
Dr. Paul Offit speaking at Communicating Vaccine Science.commons.wikimedia.org<p><strong><a href="https://www.research.chop.edu/people/paul-a-offit" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Paul Offit, M.D.</a>, is the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine for infants, and he has lent his expertise to the advisory committees that review data on new vaccines for the CDC and FDA.</strong></p>
Dr. Monica Gandhi
UCSF Health<p><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi"></a><strong><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi" target="_blank">Dr. Monica Gandhi, M.D., MPH,</a> is Professor of Medicine and Associate Division Chief (Clinical Operations/ Education) of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF/ San Francisco General Hospital.</strong></p>
Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh, FACP, FIDSA
Yale Medicine<p><strong><a href="https://medicine.yale.edu/profile/onyema_ogbuagu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh</a>, is an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine who treats COVID-19 patients and leads Yale's clinical studies around COVID-19. He ran Yale's trial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.</strong></p>
Dr. Eric Topol
Dr. Topol's Twitter<p><strong><a href="https://www.scripps.edu/faculty/topol/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Eric Topol, M.D.</a>, is a cardiologist, scientist, professor of molecular medicine, and the director and founder of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He has led clinical trials in over 40 countries with over 200,000 patients and pioneered the development of many routinely used medications.</strong></p>