The first human clinical trial of an HIV vaccine in South Africa begins this week, researchers announced Monday. The drug developed by researchers at the University of North Carolina and North Carolina biotechnology company AlphaVax, along with South Africa's University of Cape Town and Medical Research Council, is also being tested in the United States. It's one of about two dozen potential vaccines being tested by some 12,000 human volunteers in experiments around the world. But it is the only one that contains genetic material from the HIV strain most prevalent in South Africa--the country with the most people infected with HIV in the world. Some 4.7 million South Africans, roughly 11 percent of the population, are infected with the AIDS-causing virus. An estimated 600 to 1,000 South Africans die every day from AIDS-related complications.
The tests beginning this week are the first of a series planned by the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative, established by the government three years ago to develop an affordable, effective, and locally relevant vaccine. "An HIV vaccine is our best hope of eradicating HIV from the globe," said Tim Tucker, who heads the initiative. "It is an extremely exciting time."
The first drug being tested contains parts of a weakened strain of Venezuelan equine encephalitis and a harmless gene from a South African HIV strain. By entering human cells, scientists hope it will stimulate the production of antibodies that will forever fight off AIDS infections, and also train specialized cells dubbed "killer T cells" to identify and eliminate infected cells after someone contracts the virus.
Animal studies have shown significant immune responses of both types, researchers say. The first human trials are aimed at establishing the safety of the drug and are expected to last two years. If successful, they will be widened to take in more volunteers and determine the vaccine's effectiveness.