On the outskirts of Delhi, a laboratory is attempting something which, less than a decade ago, was considered almost impossible — a vaccine for HIV in India.
After the first attempts to create a vaccine for the disease failed in the late 1980s, data from the first HIV vaccine trial in 2009 saw a reduction of infection rate by 31.2%, as per the World Health Organisation. Three years later, the HIV Vaccine Translational Research Laboratory was set up jointly with the department of biotechnology’s Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI) and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), a global non profit, in Faridabad.
The laboratory’s sole aim: to design a preventive vaccine, one that is capable of eliciting an immune response capable of neutralising a broad spectrum of HIV immunogens. “Where prevention is concerned, this is one of the cleverest viruses we have ever seen. It can develop so rapidly that it can get past any immune defences. It is a virus that attacks the immune system, so it needs to figure out most quickly how to protect itself from the immune system and it does that by rapidly mutating. This is why this research is so important. The virus strain in India is different from other parts of the world and a vaccine for it must be developed accordingly,” said Dr Gagandeep Kang, director, THSTI.
The WHO notes that since HIV mutates rapidly and its outer spike of protein conceals itself from the immune system, creating viral antigens to be used in the vaccine proved difficult, and the approach was abandoned in the late 1980s.
The research in 2009 found that a very small number of HIV infected individuals produced a “broadly neutralising antibody” (bNAbs) that kept the virus suppressed and in spite of carrying the virus, they remained asymptomatic for decades.
“Why some individuals make these antibodies, no one really knows. This was first found in 2009 but these individuals make these antibodies that can kill a wide array of viruses circulating globally. These individuals have to be identified to develop the antibodies. For this, we have a multidisciplinary team,” said Dr Jayanta Bhattacharya, principal investigator at the laboratory.