India plans to set up its first laboratory exclusively tasked with designing vaccines against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and plunge deeper into a back-to-biology movement hatched after disappointing results worldwide with 30 candidate vaccines.
India’s biotechnology department and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, a public-private partnership, will establish the vaccine design laboratory at the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, a government-funded biotechnology centre near Delhi.
Research at the THSTI-IAVI laboratory is expected to focus on designing and testing molecules that show potential in generating antibodies that can effectively neutralise HIV, scientists familiar with the proposal told The Telegraph.
“This is high risk research,” said Maharaj Kishan Bhan, secretary, biotechnology. “It’s in the class of difficult problems that public funded institutions should tackle,” he said.
The pursuit of an effective vaccine against HIV has proven far more challenging than the medical community had believed it would pose early during the HIV epidemic in the 1990s. The virus changes its protein coat and uses other tricks to evade the human immune system.
Scientists estimate that since the early-1990s, more than 30 candidate vaccines have been tested worldwide with largely disappointing results. India had also evaluated two candidate vaccines against HIV over the past five years. However, no HIV vaccine is ready for routine commercial use yet.
The proposed activities at the THSTI-IAVI laboratory will be part of a renewed back-to-biology effort to decipher the molecular details of HIV infection and the immune system’s response to it.
Over the past two years, vaccine researchers at IAVI’s New York laboratory and elsewhere have turned their attention on a set of molecules called the broadly neutralising antibodies that can neutralise the virus — and appear to actually protect a small proportion of HIV-infected people from becoming ill.
One of the tasks of the THSTI-IAVI laboratory may be to screen a large number of small fragments of proteins that, scientists hope, will generate these neutralising antibodies and protect humans from HIV, scientists familiar with the project said.
“Nothing else seems to be working,” said Virander Chauhan, the director of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi, who leads an independent team of scientists seeking molecules that will generate two neutralising antibodies — codenamed 4E10 and 2F5.
The biotechnology department is trying to coax non-resident Indian scientists — post-doctoral researchers or even senior biologists — outside India to join the THSTI-IAVI laboratory.
Many scientists have argued in the past that India should invest more resources into the basic research required for HIV vaccine development. The new laboratory is expected to have a budget of about Rs 20 crore and will receive equal funding from IAVI and the biotechnology department. “It will be a full-fledged laboratory, but piggybacking on the THSTI infrastructure,” Bhan said.
Although new HIV infections appear to have plateaued in India in recent years and anti-viral treatment is able to prolong the lives of HIV-infected persons, researchers say the quest for a vaccine is as relevant today as it was in the early 1990s.
“For every new person put on treatment, there are two new infections,” said Seth Berkeley, president of IAVI. According to projections, developing countries will need $ 35 billion a year — three times what they spend now — to address HIV epidemic in 2031, unless something radically changes the equation.
Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, the National AIDS Research Institute, Pune, among other laboratories, are also involved in studying HIV-immune system reactions, but the THSTI-IAVI laboratory will be the first exclusively tasked with basic research towards new candidate HIV vaccines.
Fuente: The Telegraph