A new Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) takes aim again at progressing toward an HIV/AIDS vaccine.
The applications, which open in February, will seek multidisciplinary, hypothesis-driven research to better understand the complexities and plasticity of developing B cells for the vaccine.
This isn’t the first FOA seeking elements of combating HIV/AIDS; there was a B cell biology program in 2008 followed by the B Cell Partnership Program in 2010 and the B Cell Help immunology program in 2013-2015.
“This is building on those previous programs targeting basic B cell immunology,” James Bradac, chief of vaccine preclinical research and development branch at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease’s Division of AIDS, recently told Vaccine News Daily.
These initiatives are part of a broader fight to slow the spread of the disease, and the arsenal of HIV prevention tools has grown dramatically. While the vaccine has been in the long process of development, other preventive measures such as advocating for voluntary male circumcision (based on observational findings about the likelihood of circumcised males contracting the disease) and the continued development of antiretrovirals have been extensively explored.
Still, a vaccine would hold the most promise in fighting HIV/AIDS.
“And we feel that in order to design such a vaccine for HIV, we’ll need to better understand B cell biology,” Bradac said.
He added that understanding B cells is an essential step in producing the broadly neutralizing antibodies needed to fight off HIV.
HIV/AIDS is notoriously hard to fight due to several factors, not the least of which is its high rate of adaptation. Broadly neutralizing antibodies are needed if any vaccine would be effective, and the study of B cells teaches how to harness broadly neutralizing antibodies.
“HIV is a unique infection,” Bradac said. “We’ve studied individuals infected with HIV whose immune systems are able to generate broadly neutralizing antibodies; and by studying these individuals, we have a clue as to how we might be able to drive this process with an immunogen.”
While the development of such a vaccine would revolutionize HIV prevention, it still is a long way off. In the meantime, preventive measures that exist today, especially condom use, are the safest approach.
“As with any basic research, progress is relatively slow,” Bradac said. “But we’re making progress understanding B cells and B cell development.”