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 November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.