As a kid, growing up in California, Legend Rivera had some ideas about AIDS. Back then, he said, “it was like coodies.” In high school in the 1990′s, Rivera was taught that HIV wasn’t coodies and by practicing safer sex he could stay uninfected. However, until an outreach worker from the NYC Vaccine Trials Unit approached him a few years ago, Rivera was unaware of another way to stay uninfected, an HIV vaccine. “I just didn’t know about them,” he said. “It really intrigued me.”
He’s not alone. Most people know little or nothing about HIV vaccines. When asked, some can’t say whether one is available or not. Of course, twenty-five years into the AIDS pandemic, there is still no vaccine to prevent infection from HIV.
In the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, researchers and scientists boldly proclaimed a vaccine to prevent AIDS would be ready within two years. Since then, nothing even remotely that optimistic has been said. It’s a prime example of just how little was known about the cause of AIDS. Had science clearly realized that AIDS was caused by a retrovirus, able to change genetic structure ad infinitum, they would never had made that statement.
Vaccines work by teaching the body to recognize and destroy the specific genetic structure of a virus. When Jonas Salk invented the Polio vaccine, he actually injected a weakened version of the virus into patients. The weakened version taught their bodies to recognize and destroy the real one. Measles, Mumps, and Polio have all but been eradicated using the Salk method.
However, because HIV is a retrovirus able to change genetic structure, the old vaccine technique is useless. HIV is a moving genetic target that changes too quickly for Salks technique to work. Creating an effective HIV vaccine will require a new and unique approach.
Today, a network of over 25 institutions are engaged in finding that approach. Their efforts are joined through the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. The NYC HIV Vaccine Trials Unit is a part of that network.
The NYC HIV Vaccine Trials Unit takes experimental HIV vaccines from Phase II of clinical trial to Phase III. In other words, they do the human testing of vaccines that have already been tested in animals. So far, only two HIV vaccines have made it to Phase III trials around the world, said Steven Chang, Site Coordinator at the NYC HVTU. “ Unfortunately,” he said, “neither of them were shown to be effective.”
In this episode of Reporting AIDS, we are joined by Stephen Chang, Site Coordinator at the NYC HIV Vaccines Trial Unit and Legend Rivera, a volunteer participant injected with an experimental HIV vaccine. Please join us as we talk about HIV vaccines.