King’s boffins’ HIV mission

KCL research brings the end to HIV one step closer.


What is regarded as the Holy Grail of modern biomedical research? The cure for cancer? A vaccine against HIV?

We could very well be on the way to discovering the latter. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is an ever-recurring topic when it comes to biological science.

Since our earliest days of secondary school Biology classes, the topic has resurfaced in the form of presentation posters, class discussions, through to academic papers and scientific reports on this elusive and debilitating virus.

Currently, the virus affects over 34 million people globally, 69% of those originating from Sub-Saharan Africa. Over 9.7 million people rely on antiretroviral therapy (ART) in order to cope with the virus. (WHO, 2012)

For those who need reminding, HIV causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, which in turn causes suppression and weakening of the immune system. This results in the body becoming highly susceptible to everyday infections that would usually be effortlessly eradicated, creating an optimal environment for infections, as well as cancers, to thrive and potentially be life threatening.

HIV overcomes the immune system by entering T helper cells and macrophages (types of white blood cells), where the virus will then replicate itself using the cells’ own DNA replication machinery, allowing for further resistive mutations to be produced within the host cells’ own DNA.

This is one of the main reasons why no cure has yet been developed for the virus, although upcoming research at King’s may lead us onto the right path. A team of researchers have published a study underlining the role that human gene MX2 has in inhibiting the spread of HIV after infection. The HIV virus was introduced to two separate human cell lines, one with the MX2 gene being expressed, ‘on’, and the other with the gene silenced, or ‘off’. Where the MX2 gene was expressed, the virus was prevented from replicating and thus producing new potentially resistive strains.

This may pave the road for new effective, non-toxic treatments for HIV affected individuals – treatments that make use of the body’s own defence mechanisms. However, as the saying goes, prevention is better than the cure and finally we may be one step closer to just that.

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario have recently announced that a vaccine for HIV (named SAV001-H) has successfully passed phase 1 clinical trials, where safety, tolerability and immune response are monitored, with no adverse effects to health in human patients. More surprisingly, the vaccine actually boosted antibody production, particularly in antibodies that correspond to HIV glycoprotein antigens that allow cell to cell transmission of the virus. But what makes this vaccine so far successful where others have previously failed?

Unlike other previously attempted vaccines where artificial virus vectors were used, the SAV001-H makes use of a whole, killed, genetically modified (for increased safety) HIV-1. Perhaps it goes to show that nothing beats the real deal.

This vaccine is still far from becoming the next pioneering milestone of scientific research, but optimism is maintained as it passes into phase 2 of clinical trials.