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Medicine and Health

EVA: a helping -hand for AIDS research

   
 
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Many experts think that a combination vaccine might be necessary.
Current estimates put the number of people affected by AIDS worldwide at 30 million and growing. Affluent nations are now using effective drug therapies but their cost makes them inaccessible to affected people in the developing world. An AIDS vaccine would be less expensive, particularly if only a few doses were required to give life-long protection against infection. The European Vaccine Against AIDS programme is playing a unique role in encouraging pan-European research efforts. It provides research tools such as live virus, cell lines and proteins that individual groups would otherwise be unable to access. It is also proactive, initiating and encouraging new collaborative projects throughout the EU and facilitating the exchange of skills and knowledge through its regular International Workshops.

 

Developing a vaccine against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), has proved exceptionally tricky. Many viral diseases can be prevented very effectively by vaccination - measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox and polio are just a handful of examples. But, after almost 20 years of intensive research, an AIDS vaccine remains just out of reach. The virus infection itself does provoke an immune response in the body, but attacks and kills cells of the immune system. The virus also changes its appearance very regularly, outwitting the body's defence mechanisms.

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In Europe the number of new cases of AIDS has declined over the last five years because of preventive methods.

Vaccine versus drugs
A decade ago, many pharmaceutical companies throughout the world were placing more or less equal emphasis on drug development and vaccine research. In the intervening years, this balance has changed and commercial drug companies have diverted most of their resources towards the successful combined therapies. Today, AIDS vaccine research has become largely government funded. The European Union, in particular, is currently providing research grants to many projects. One of the largest is EVA, the European Vaccine Against AIDS programme, co-ordinated by Dr Harvey Holmes and based at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (UK).

The roots of EVA are in the UK's AIDS Reagent Project, which ran throughout the 1980s. This was a major research effort funded by the British Medical Research Council to establish a reagent supply programme to provide key research materials to workers in the field. "Our aim was to supply high quality materials - cell lines, live virus, peptides and so on, that researchers could use to progress their work into potential AIDS vaccines more quickly than if they had had to make those materials themselves," explains Harvey Holmes.

Moving into Europe
With the EU support, this service was extended to the whole of Europe. The EVA project, which began in 1993, now involves participants from 12 EU countries. The bank of materials supplied is being added to all the time. Most are made on site at NIBSC, the EVA centralised facility, but some biotech companies make specialised products under contract. Although EVA will supply reagents on demand, and will even make new reagents to order if the research group asking for them can make a good case, the project has also a proactive role. "One of our major objectives is to bring European AIDS vaccine researchers together. Collaborative projects are good for all sorts of reasons - different labs can share resources, results are better, the researchers learn new techniques from each other - and they make the use of the reagents we produce much more effective," comments Harvey Holmes.

Vaccine prospects
EVA provides the necessary reagents and holds regular workshops to help researchers:

  • Develop and test live but attenuated (disabled) virus vaccines.
  • Carry out immunisation studies with short pieces of naked nucleic acid from HIV. Tests in animals have shown that this works surprisingly well.
  • Investigate the possibility of blocking receptors for HIV in body cells. The recent discovery of the importance of chemokine receptors, the second main receptors for HIV, has opened up lots of new possibilities in this area.
  • Put the genes for key HIV envelope proteins into a disabled vaccinia virus. This is a large harmless virus that can multiply to a very limited extent in the body. It is used widely to give vaccines a 'piggy-back' to get them into the body. Vaccinia produces enough of the HIV proteins to give a good immune response.

No one is sure which approach will meet with the ultimate success and many experts think that a combination vaccine might be necessary. "We could end up with a vaccine that consists of a naked DNA component, followed by an injection of vaccinia virus containing HIV proteins, all topped off with an immunisation with purified HIV proteins. Such a multi-faceted vaccine might give good enough immunity to keep the number of boosters required fairly low, once a year at the most," says Holmes.

But there is a long way to go yet. More animal studies are needed and any potential vaccine must be tested exhaustively to make sure it is safe before human trials begin. There are still uncertainties, but AIDS experts are optimistic that an AIDS vaccine is possible, and one thing at least seems definite: the reagents and materials provided by EVA will have played a major part in its development.

 

 

Project Title:  
EVA: The European Vaccine Against AIDS programme

Programmes:
Biomedecine and Health (BIOMED)

Contract Reference: BMH11065

CORDIS databaseFor more information on this project,
go to the Cordis database Record

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