The first phase of a new vaccine trial was launched in Oxford last week in a bid to boost international efforts to find a vaccine against HIV. The trials are sponsored by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and conducted under the auspices of the Medical Research Council's human immunology unit.
Eighteen volunteers, including Dr Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, are taking part in the trials, which are being conducted at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford.
Dr Seth Berkley, president of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, said: “This is the first of four vaccine candidates for Africa that our organisation is moving forward. Vaccine development has traditionally relied on the altruism of volunteers. They are the true heroes of this endeavour.”
Although there are more than 70 HIV vaccines being tested around the world, this is the first vaccine to be specifically designed to combat the clade A HIV-1 virus, which is the most prevalent strain in many parts of Africa. It was developed after doctors found that some prostitutes in Kenya, where the A strain of the disease is dominant, did not contract HIV despite regular exposure to it.
The aim of the first phase of this trial is to find out if the vaccine is safe in volunteers who are at a very low risk of contracting HIV and whether it produces an immune response.
The vaccine has been synthetically manufactured to contain only small fragments of DNA to boost the immune system. As these cannot replicate, there is no risk of developing HIV from the immunisation.
It is hoped that the vaccine will stimulate the body to produce killer T cells that will destroy HIV infected cells quickly enough to stop an infection taking hold.
The vaccine is not expected to be ready for about 10 years and will work only against the strain of HIV that is found in Africa. Doctors hope, however, that the technique could be adapted to produce vaccines for the other strains of HIV.
If this first phase is successful, the same trials will be repeated in Nairobi, Kenya, in three to six months, pending the receipt of regulatory approval.
Dr Evan Harris said: “I'm taking part in this trial as I believe that finding an effective vaccine is our best hope to control this devastating disease.”
Any fit and well person in the Oxford region interested in volunteering can obtain information on the trial, without commitment and in confidence by contacting the trial information phone line (0800 169 6978). The trial's website is www.oxavi.org.