Encouraging First-in-Human Results for a Promising HIV Vaccine
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
In recent years, we’ve witnessed some truly inspiring progress in vaccine development. That includes the mRNA vaccines that were so critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, the first approved vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and a “universal flu vaccine” candidate that could one day help to thwart future outbreaks of more novel influenza viruses.
Inspiring progress also continues to be made toward a safe and effective vaccine for HIV, which still infects about 1.5 million people around the world each year . A prime example is the recent first-in-human trial of an HIV vaccine made in the lab from a unique protein nanoparticle, a molecular construct measuring just a few billionths of a meter.
The results of this early phase clinical study, published recently in the journal Science Translational Medicine  and earlier in Science , showed that the experimental HIV nanoparticle vaccine is safe in people. While this vaccine alone will not offer HIV protection and is intended to be part of an eventual broader, multistep vaccination regimen, the researchers also determined that it elicited a robust immune response in nearly all 36 healthy adult volunteers.
How robust? The results show that the nanoparticle vaccine, known by the lab name eOD-GT8 60-mer, successfully expanded production of a rare type of antibody-producing immune B cell in nearly all recipients.
What makes this rare type of B cell so critical is that it is the cellular precursor of other B cells capable of producing broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs) to protect against diverse HIV variants. Also very good news, the vaccine elicited broad responses from helper T cells. They play a critical supportive role for those essential B cells and their development of the needed broadly neutralizing antibodies.
For decades, researchers have brought a wealth of ideas to bear on developing a safe and effective HIV vaccine. However, crossing the finish line—an FDA-approved vaccine—has proved profoundly difficult.
A major reason is the human immune system is ill equipped to recognize HIV and produce the needed infection-fighting antibodies. And yet the medical literature includes reports of people with HIV who have produced the needed antibodies, showing that our immune system can do it.
But these people remain relatively rare, and the needed robust immunity clocks in only after many years of infection. On top of that, HIV has a habit of mutating rapidly to produce a wide range of identity-altering variants. For a vaccine to work, it most likely will need to induce the production of bnAbs that recognize and defend against not one, but the many different faces of HIV.
To make the uncommon more common became the quest of a research team that includes scientists William Schief, Scripps Research and IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Center, La Jolla, CA; M. Juliana McElrath, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle; and Kristen Cohen, a former member of the McElrath lab now at Moderna, Cambridge, MA. The team, with NIH collaborators and support, has been plotting out a stepwise approach to train the immune system into making the needed bnAbs that recognize many HIV variants.
The critical first step is to prime the immune system to make more of those coveted bnAb-precursor B cells. That’s where the protein nanoparticle known as eOD-GT8 60-mer enters the picture.
This nanoparticle, administered by injection, is designed to mimic a small, highly conserved segment of an HIV protein that allows the virus to bind and infect human cells. In the body, those nanoparticles launch an immune response and then quickly vanish. But because this important protein target for HIV vaccines is so tiny, its signal needed amplification for immune system detection.
To boost the signal, the researchers started with a bacterial protein called lumazine synthase (LumSyn). It forms the scaffold, or structural support, of the self-assembling nanoparticle. Then, they added to the LumSyn scaffold 60 copies of the key HIV protein. This louder HIV signal is tailored to draw out and engage those very specific B cells with the potential to produce bnAbs.
As the first-in-human study showed, the nanoparticle vaccine was safe when administered twice to each participant eight weeks apart. People reported only mild to moderate side effects that went away in a day or two. The vaccine also boosted production of the desired B cells in all but one vaccine recipient (35 of 36). The idea is that this increase in essential B cells sets the stage for the needed additional steps—booster shots that can further coax these cells along toward making HIV protective bnAbs.
The latest finding in Science Translational Medicine looked deeper into the response of helper T cells in the same trial volunteers. Again, the results appear very encouraging. The researchers observed CD4 T cells specific to the HIV protein and to the LumSyn in 84 percent and 93 percent of vaccine recipients. Their analyses also identified key hotspots that the T cells recognized, which is important information for refining future vaccines to elicit helper T cells.
The team reports that they’re now collaborating with Moderna, the developer of one of the two successful mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, on an mRNA version of eOD-GT8 60-mer. That’s exciting because mRNA vaccines are much faster and easier to produce and modify, which should now help to move this line of research along at a faster clip.
Indeed, two International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI)-sponsored clinical trials of the mRNA version are already underway, one in the U.S. and the other in Rwanda and South Africa . It looks like this team and others are now on a promising track toward following the basic science and developing a multistep HIV vaccination regimen that guides the immune response and its stepwise phases in the right directions.
As we look back on more than 40 years of HIV research, it’s heartening to witness the progress that continues toward ending the HIV epidemic. This includes the recent FDA approval of the drug Apretude, the first injectable treatment option for pre-exposure prevention of HIV, and the continued global commitment to produce a safe and effective vaccine.
 Global HIV & AIDS statistics fact sheet. UNAIDS.
 A first-in-human germline-targeting HIV nanoparticle vaccine induced broad and publicly targeted helper T cell responses. Cohen KW, De Rosa SC, Fulp WJ, deCamp AC, Fiore-Gartland A, Laufer DS, Koup RA, McDermott AB, Schief WR, McElrath MJ. Sci Transl Med. 2023 May 24;15(697):eadf3309.
 Vaccination induces HIV broadly neutralizing antibody precursors in humans. Leggat DJ, Cohen KW, Willis JR, Fulp WJ, deCamp AC, Koup RA, Laufer DS, McElrath MJ, McDermott AB, Schief WR. Science. 2022 Dec 2;378(6623):eadd6502.
 IAVI and Moderna launch first-in-Africa clinical trial of mRNA HIV vaccine development program. IAVI. May 18, 2022.
Progress Toward an Eventual HIV Vaccine, NIH Research Matters, Dec. 13, 2022.
NIH Statement on HIV Vaccine Awareness Day 2023, Auchincloss H, Kapogiannis, B. May, 18, 2023.
HIV Vaccine Development (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)
International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) (New York, NY)
William Schief (Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA)
Julie McElrath (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle, WA)
McElrath Lab (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle, WA)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Celebrating the Gift of COVID-19 Vaccines
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
The winter holidays are traditionally a time of gift-giving. As fatiguing as 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have been, science has stepped up this year to provide humankind with a pair of truly hopeful gifts: the first two COVID-19 vaccines.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech, enabling distribution to begin to certain high-risk groups just three days later. More recently, the FDA granted an EUA to a COVID-19 vaccine from the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA. This messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, which is part of a new approach to vaccination, was co-developed by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The EUA is based on data showing the vaccine is safe and 94.5 percent effective at protecting people from infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Those data on the Moderna vaccine come from a clinical trial of 30,000 individuals, who generously participated to help others. We can’t thank those trial participants enough for this gift. The distribution of millions of Moderna vaccine doses is expected to begin this week.
It’s hard to put into words just how remarkable these accomplishments are in the history of science. A vaccine development process that used to take many years, often decades, has been condensed to about 11 months. Just last January, researchers started out with a previously unknown virus and we now have not just one, but two, vaccines that will be administered to millions of Americans before year’s end. And the accomplishments don’t end there—several other types of COVID-19 vaccines are also on the way.
It’s important to recognize that this couldn’t have happened without the efforts of many scientists working tirelessly behind the scenes for many years prior to the pandemic. Among those who deserve tremendous credit are Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, John Mascola, and other members of the amazing team at the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
When word of SARS-CoV-2 emerged, Corbett, Graham, and other NIAID researchers had already been studying other coronaviruses for years, including those responsible for earlier outbreaks of respiratory disease. So, when word came that this was a new coronavirus outbreak, they were ready to take action. It helped that they had paid special attention to the spike proteins on the surface of coronaviruses, which have turned out to be the main focus the COVID-19 vaccines now under development.
The two vaccines currently authorized for administration in the United States work in a unique way. Their centerpiece is a small, non-infectious snippet of mRNA. Our cells constantly produce thousands of mRNAs, which provide the instructions needed to make proteins. When someone receives an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, it tells the person’s own cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The person’s immune system then recognizes the viral spike protein as foreign and produces antibodies to eliminate it.
This vaccine-spurred encounter trains the human immune system to remember the spike protein. So, if an actual SARS-CoV-2 virus tries to infect a vaccinated person weeks or months later, his or her immune system will be ready to fend it off. To produce the most vigorous and durable immunity against the virus, people will need to get two shots of mRNA vaccine, which are spaced several weeks to a month apart, depending on the vaccine.
Some have raised concerns on social media that mRNA vaccines might alter the DNA genome of someone being vaccinated. But that’s not possible, since this mRNA doesn’t enter the nucleus of the cell where DNA is located. Instead, the vaccine mRNAs stay in the outer part of the cell (the cytoplasm). What’s more, after being transcribed into protein just one time, the mRNA quickly degrades. Others have expressed concerns about whether the vaccine could cause COVID-19. That is not a risk because there’s no whole virus involved, just the coding instructions for the non-infectious spike protein.
An important advantage of mRNA is that it’s easy for researchers to synthesize once they know the nucleic acid sequence of a target viral protein. So, the gift of mRNA vaccines is one that will surely keep on giving. This new technology can now be used to speed the development of future vaccines. After the emergence of the disease-causing SARS, MERS, and now SARS-CoV-2 viruses, it would not be surprising if there are other coronavirus health threats in our future. Corbett and her colleagues are hoping to design a universal vaccine that can battle all of them. In addition, mRNA vaccines may prove effective for fighting future pandemics caused by other infectious agents and for preventing many other conditions, such as cancer and HIV.
Though vaccines are unquestionably our best hope for getting past the COVID-19 pandemic, public surveys indicate that some people are uneasy about accepting this disease-preventing gift. Some have even indicated they will refuse to take the vaccine. Healthy skepticism is a good thing, but decisions like this ought to be based on weighing the evidence of benefit versus risk. The results of the Pfizer and Moderna trials, all released for complete public scrutiny, indicate the potential benefits are high and the risks, low. Despite the impressive speed at which the new COVID-19 vaccines were developed, they have undergone and continue to undergo a rigorous process to generate all the data needed by the FDA to determine their long-term safety and effectiveness.
Unfortunately, the gift of COVID-19 vaccines comes too late for the more than 313,000 Americans who have died from complications of COVID-19, and many others who’ve had their lives disrupted and may have to contend with long-term health consequences related to COVID-19. The vaccines did arrive in record time, but all of us wish they could somehow have arrived even sooner to avert such widespread suffering and heartbreak.
It will be many months before all Americans who are willing to get a vaccine can be immunized. We need 75-80 percent of Americans to receive vaccines in order to attain the so-called “herd immunity” needed to drive SARS-CoV-2 away and allow us all to get back to a semblance of normal life.
Meanwhile, we all have a responsibility to do everything possible to block the ongoing transmission of this dangerous virus. Each of us needs to follow the three W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands often.
When your chance for immunization comes, please roll up your sleeve and accept the potentially life-saving gift of a COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, I just got my first shot of the Moderna vaccine today along with NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and some front-line healthcare workers at the NIH Clinical Center. Accepting this gift is our best chance to put this pandemic behind us, as we look forward to a better new year.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)
Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)
Moderna (Cambridge, MA)
Pfizer (New York, NY)
BioNTech (Mainz, Germany)
AIDS Vaccine Research: Better By Design?
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
A while ago, I highlighted a promising new approach for designing a vaccine against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS. This strategy would “take the immune system to school” and teach it a series of lessons using several vaccine injections—each consisting of a different HIV proteins designed to push the immune system, step by step, toward the production of protective antibodies capable of fending off virtually all HIV strains. But a big unanswered question was whether most people actually possess the specific type of precursor immune cells that that can be taught to produce antibodies that kill HIV.
Now, we may have the answer . In a study published in the journal Science, a research team, partly supported by NIH, found that the majority of people do indeed have these precursor cells. While the total number of these cells in each person may be low, this may be all that’s needed for the immune system to recognize a vaccine. Based in part on these findings, researchers plan to launch a Phase 1 clinical trial in human volunteers to see if their latest engineered protein can find these precursor cells and begin coaxing them through the complicated process of producing protective antibodies.