Reactions have trailed the Scripps Research Institute’s quest to produce the world’s first HIV vaccine through a successful genetically engineered immune cells in mice.
The study, which scientists claimed elicited some level of induced neutralising antibodies in mice, seems to have renewed hope in the global quest for a vaccine to prevent the human immunodeficiency virus.
In a research article posted on Medical Express site, the institute said its scientists had moved closer to attaining the holy grail of HIV research with a new vaccine approach that would rely on genetically engineered immune cells from the patient’s body.
According to principal investigator of Scripps Research, James Voss, the human immunodeficiency virus, which continues to infect millions around the world, has proved tricky to prevent conventional antibodies, in part because it evolves so rapidly in the body.
“Any solution would require coaxing the body into producing a special type of antibody that can act broadly to defeat multiple strains of the virus at once.
“In experiments involving mice, the approach successfully induced broadly neutralizing antibodies—also called bnabs—that can prevent HIV infection,” he said.
The health journal stated that Voss and his team demonstrated in 2019 that it was possible to reprogramme the antibody genes of the immune system’s B cells using CRISPR to produce the same broadly neutralizing HIV antibodies that have been found in rare HIV patients.
Voss emphasized that the new study also highlighted that such engineered B cells, after being reintroduced to the body, can multiply in response to a vaccination—and mature into memory cells and plasma cells that produce high levels of protective antibodies for long periods of time in the body.
“The team also demonstrated that the engineered genes can be improved to make antibodies that are even more effective against the virus, using a process that normally occurs in B cells that are responding to immunization.
“This is the first time it has been shown that modified B cells can create a durable engineered antibody response in a relevant animal model,” Voss explains.
He hopes that his vaccine approach may someday prevent new HIV infections and possibly offer a functional cure to those who already have HIV/AIDS. The virus is still prevalent throughout the world, with an estimated 38 million people with the disease in 2019.
“People think of cell therapies as being very expensive. We’re doing a lot of work towards trying to make the technology affordable as a preventative HIV vaccine or functional cure that would replace daily antiviral therapy,” he stated.
Meanwhile, a consultant immunologist at the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, Dr. Abdulfatai Onifade expressed reservation that the research may inevitably turn out to be another dead end.
“The chances of success from such research, like many of its kind, is very slim. You know scientists have tried many experiments for the vaccine in the past but they often fail when they get to certain stages. The expected approach here is to get something that can kill the source.
“The other way round is to get something that can simulate the variants of the coordinator of immune cells to kill the infected cells, which is quite difficult,” he said.
On why it is taking too long for the world to come with a potent vaccine for HIV, the immunologist disclosed that it was not a walk in the park.
He stressed that unlike other organisms, HIV targets immune cells.
“It targets the most important immune cell, not the average ones. The most important immune cells is called the coordinator of other cells. As we know, HIV comes in and uses the host cell apparatus to multiply. And if the host cell is not producing any protein, it means the HIV will not have any effect. But if it does produce protein, the virus will also produce its own.
“This is why it is difficult for anybody with intent to produce a vaccine for HIV.
“Even if a vaccine is to be produced, it must work with the coordinator of immune cells. If the coordinator has not been infected already, then you have a model. What they (researchers) should be looking at now is the therapeutic approach, not a vaccine. I am talking about a virucidal approach that can kill the infected cells. But if they continue with the vaccine approach, they cannot get anything out of it,” he noted.
A virucidal approach is a method that involves the use of a physical or chemical agent to deactivate or destroy viruses.
It differs from an antiviral drug, which inhibits the proliferation of the virus.
“All the current ART drugs in circulation are virustatic. What it means is that they are only inhibiting one process or the other in the multiplication stage of HIV reproduction,” he said.
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