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The next step is to develop ways to boost immune response, where immune system cells are guided through a development process to produce stronger and broader antibodies.
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Building an Affordable and Immunogenic HIV Vaccine

This global project aims to discover an HIV vaccine that is practical for those in low-resource countries

Amsterdam University Medical Centers
Published:Jan 17, 2024
|2 min read
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An estimated 40 million people live with HIV worldwide: Two-thirds of this group is from the African continent. In 2022, more than 600,000 people died from HIV-related causes and more than 1.3 million were infected. There is no vaccine against the world's second most deadly infection, after TB. However, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amsterdam University Medical Center’s (UMC's) Rogier Sanders, PhD, leads a project that aims to develop the first effective HIV vaccine.  

"We hope to be able to develop a preventative vaccine by designing and testing immunogens that will induce neutralizing antibodies. So far, no one has managed this,” says Sanders, professor of virology at Amsterdam UMC. 

Developing an HIV vaccine has proven, so far, impossible but in Sanders' view there are reasons to be positive. “There’s quite a lot of optimism at the moment in the HIV vaccine field because of developments in early-phase research. There are quite some positive results from several Phase 1 studies on trying to induce broadly neutralizing antibodies,” Sanders explains. “All the vaccines that failed so far have not been able to induce neutralizing antibodies, let alone broadly neutralizing antibodies. But there’s very nice progress compared to these earlier studies.”  

Building on progress 

Sanders’ team, consisting of researchers from Stanford University, Weill Cornell Medical College, and the University of Louisiana, aims to develop a vaccine that specifically targets rare immune cells, capable of making antibodies that neutralize the virus. Known as germline targeting, this process guides the immune system by activating immune cells that have the potential to grow and produce antibodies that react against an HIV infection. This process has already been shown to work, in a study published in Science, earlier this year.  

Sanders’ team is also currently busy searching for a vaccine candidate that can stimulate immune cells into producing antibodies. The next step is to develop ways to boost immune response, through “priming, shaping, and polishing,” where these cells are then guided through a development process so that they can ultimately produce stronger and broader antibodies. 

"Think of the human immune cells in terms of a youth football team. First, the germline-targeting vaccine scouts and recruits the talents from this youth team, then once the right cells have been primed, through multiple phases of training, shaping and polishing vaccines, the talented players are eventually shaped into world-class football players,” says Sanders. This process may ultimately lead to an immune response that is strong enough to repel an HIV infection and, thus, a fully immunogenic vaccine.  

Unusual features 

While this sounds simple, the hunt for an HIV vaccine has puzzled virologists. Since the 1980s, there has still not been a successful Phase 3 study among a large group of subjects. This is mainly due to the unusual properties of HIV. "There are so many things to consider," Sanders explains. "There are a number of reasons why it is so difficult to make a vaccine and one of them is the diversity of the virus. A second difficulty lies in the structural or chemical properties of the protein that surrounds the virus, which is crucial for vaccines."  

Sanders' team recently took an important step toward “priming” a vaccine that was tested in a Phase 1 study in test subjects in New York, Washington, and Amsterdam UMC. "We are hopeful that we will eventually succeed in developing an effective vaccine against the many variants of HIV. Hopefully, that will put an end to the ongoing misery that the virus brings," said Sanders.

- This press release was originally published on the Amsterdam UMC website