WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW;
Today, Oregon Health And Science University made a major announcement: It’s seeking healthy volunteers for what is being touted across social channels as a test for an HIV vaccine. Unfortunately, that’s notquite true. But we very well may be on the verge of a major breakthrough in vaccines, and not just for HIV.
Here’s what you need to know:
What Is This Vaccine?
Despite what Facebook is insisting, this isn’t a trial for an HIV vaccine. Instead, this is the beginnings of a test to see if a vaccine using cytomegalovirus, or CMV, is a viable method to vaccinate humans. If so, that would open the door to more than just HIV treatment. Any virus would be a candidate for the vaccine. So if you live in Portland, OR, you can make thirty bucks and advance the cause of science in one fell swoop.
Why CMV, specifically? It’s a type of herpes, a fairly common virus used in cutting-edge vaccines, that — once present –keeps the body’s immune response churning. If someone has CMV, their body is constantly looking to clear it off the board for good. This means if you give CMV certain characteristics that makes it similar to HIV, your body will turn out anti-bodies that target those characteristics, and thus you’d be vaccinated for the long term.
Could This Vaccine Work?
It’s shown some strong promise. Tests using monkeys infected with the very similar Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, or SIV,showed near-total eradication back in 2011, and the case has only become stronger since then. That said, monkey studies are not human studies, and those were studies done in labs with animals specifically chosen for lab work. A vaccine that works on humans out in the wild is a very different proposition.
In order to figure out if this is a viable option for humans, we’ll need to do a lot of work. Among the more obvious problems is we can’t just stick this vaccine into a bunch of people at high risk for HIV infection and tell them “Do whatever you’d like, it’s all good!” What OHSU is doing is just the first step on what will likely be a long, long road. Currently, if everything goes according to plan and every scrap of the science lines up, we’re looking at a vaccine of some sort by 2026 or so.
So Is The Excitement Overblown?
That said, this is potentially a historic moment in medicine. We’re on the verge of a new class of vaccines for some of the world’s most persistent and dangerous viruses. Even if the CMV trials ultimately only yield a vaccine against, say, tuberculosis, that would give us a weapon to help eradicate a virus that kills over a million people every single year, according to WHO estimates. That’s a decade of scientific work and millions of dollars well spent by any standard.
But it’s going to take thousands of volunteers and a lot of hard work to get there. This first trial is simply to determine the prevalence of CMV in humans and to create a pool of volunteers to test the vaccine, but the potential implications are still definitely worth getting excited about.