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The fight against COVID may lead to an HIV vaccine in San Antonio

A computer-enhanced image of the HIV virus.
Computer enhanced image from CDC
A computer-enhanced image of the HIV virus.

An mRNA vaccine against HIV will be tested in San Antonio, and the doctor leading the study is thrilled to be a part of it.

Dr. Barbara Taylor is an infectious disease doctor at UT Health San Antonio and University Health System and an assistant dean and associate professor of infectious diseases at Long School of Medicine. She’s been working with HIV patients for decades, so to be leading a trial of an HIV vaccine means a lot to her.

“It's honestly hard for me to talk about how important this is to me without getting really emotional because I started medical school in 1996, and I remember when I was interviewing for medical school positions, going through hospital wards that were full of young people dying of HIV,” Taylor said, adding, “It's just for me personally, it means so much to be able to be a part of it.”

The vaccine being tested is an mRNA vaccine, like the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines, and was produced by Moderna. Taylor said the rapid advancement in mRNA technology driven by the pandemic is just the breakthrough HIV vaccine researchers have been waiting for.

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“It is really amazing to think of how all of our struggle over the last two years with COVID could actually lead to an effective HIV vaccine,” she said.

Scientists have been trying to make an HIV vaccine for as long as HIV has been around, but HIV is a bit more complicated than the virus that causes COVID-19.

“HIV rate of mutation is many times higher than a coronavirus," Taylor explained. "So the challenge with HIV is that as soon as you develop those antibodies to fight HIV, the virus has already moved well past your own immune response.”

This vaccine tries to overcome that with a combination of shots. The first shot — the prime — is designed to wake up the resting immune system to the idea of an incoming threat.

And then, there’s the second shot — the boost.

“The boost in the context of this trial is a different vaccine that's really meant to take those cells that we've sort of woken up and then really make them create an array of broadly neutralizing antibodies,” Taylor said.

These are really early days in the study of this vaccine. It’s a phase one trial that is only enrolling 15 people in San Antonio. What do they hope to learn about the vaccine in this trial?

“That it's safe. That's the primary goal for a phase one study. We want to make sure that people are safe and then that it creates a pathway for these broadly neutralizing antibodies.”

Taylor is looking for research volunteers who are healthy, who don’t have HIV and aren’t at risk for HIV, who are between the ages of 18 and 49, and who are as passionate as Taylor is about contributing to the science of developing an HIV vaccine…

“It means so much to think that we could actually have HIV end through access to a vaccine,” Taylor added.

Three other sites — the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, George Washington University and Emory University — are also studying this vaccine.

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