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Laboratories inside the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division (VIDD), Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

On World AIDS Day, renewed hope for an HIV vaccine

World’s AIDS Day 2016 brings especially hopeful news: A large-scale clinical trial has opened in South Africa to test an experimental HIV vaccine regimen that could lead to the first licensed vaccine against the virus that causes AIDS.

The experimental vaccine under study is a modified version of the so-called Thai vaccine, which in 2009 became the only vaccine tested so far to show even modest protection against the rapidly mutating virus that has killed 35 million people worldwide since the HIV/AIDS pandemic began in 1981.

Leading the HIV vaccine trial are a quartet of top physician-scientists from South Africa: Drs. Fatima Laher, Linda-Gail Bekker, Mookho Malahleha and Glenda Gray.

Fred Hutch file photo

The new trial, called HVTN 702,  is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the South African Medical Research Council and conducted by the NIAID-funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network, or HVTN, a global network headquartered at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“The people of South Africa are making history by conducting and participating in the first HIV vaccine efficacy study to build on the results of the Thai trail,” said trial chair Dr. Glenda Gray, president and executive officer of the South African Medical Research Council, in a statement released by NIAID. “If an HIV vaccine were found to work in South Africa, it could dramatically alter the course of the pandemic.” 

Gray is an HVTN co-director and head of its Africa programs. Co-chairing the trial with her are South African scientists Dr. Linda-Gail Bekker, deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the University of Cape Town and chief operating officer of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation; Dr.  Fatima Laher, a director of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto; and Dr. Mookho Malahleha, deputy director of Setshaba Research Centre in Soshanguve.

It seems especially fitting that the four scientists leading the trial are women from Africa.  Globally, women make up half of the 36.7 million people living with HIV, and 80 percent of infected women live in sub-Saharan Africa, the region hardest hit by the pandemic. Most infections in sub-Saharan Africa are transmitted heterosexually. For biological, socioeconomic and cultural reasons, women are more vulnerable than men to acquiring HIVduring sex.

In a culture in which men dominate relationships, women often can’t negotiate safer sex practices such as condom use or taking a daily antiretroviral pill known as PrEP to prevent infection. One of the appeals of a vaccine is that it can be used discretely, without a woman’s partner even knowing. 

“An HIV vaccine is the ultimate female prevention tool,” Gray said at a press conference at the recent international AIDS 2016 conference in Durban, South Africa. “You put it in your arm and it works in your vagina."

Read the full story in Hutch News