Archive for July, 2009

First African-developed HIV vaccine goes to trial

21 July, 2009

Finally, finally, a product of our 10-odd-year-old South African HIV vaccine development programme goes into Phase I human trial, in South Africa!

I say “our” because I was part of the overall team; however, the two vaccines which comprise the SA AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) / HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) trial – designated SAAVI 102/HVTN 073 – were designed and developed by others.

The vaccines consist of a DNA component, consisting of an artificial “polygene” dubbed Grttn (for Gag-RT-Tat-Nef) and a truncated Env (gp150) cloned separately into vector plasmids, and the same genes recombined under the control of different promoters into the genome of a poxvirus (Modified Vaccinia Ankara, MVA).  These and their testing in mice and non-human primates have been described in published work: see here and here for relevant journal articles on the MVA and DNA components.

From the July 20th SAAVI press release:

The test vaccines – called SAAVI MVA-C and SAAVI DNA-C2 – have shown promising results in animal testing. The SAAVI DNA-C2 vaccine was constructed in South Africa using a plasmid backbone provided by the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (VRC) of NIAID, while the MVA vaccine was designed by the team at UCT and constructed and manufactured in the USA.

“Reaching this important milestone of translating our discoveries in the laboratory to testing in humans would not have been possible without the support of a large team of people from the University of Cape Town, together with national and international collaborations.  An effective vaccine against HIV/AIDS remains a top global health priority and it is our hope that the evaluation of these vaccines in clinical trial will provide some important answers that will bring us closer towards this goal,” says Prof. Anna-Lise Williamson, leader of the vaccine development team and joint staff member of UCT’s Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, and the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS).

The SAAVI DNA-C2 was constructed in South Africa and manufactured in the US by Althea Technologies. The MVA vaccine was manufactured by Therion Biologics, USA. The vaccines will be tested in a prime-boost approach where the SAAVI DNA-C2 vaccine will be given to prime the immune response and the SAAVI MVA-C vaccine to boost or enhance the immune response.

National and international press got hold of the story in a big way – unsurprisingly, given as there is the 5th IAS Conference on AIDS Pathogenesis going in in Cape Town at the same time, which incidentally has its own live blog feed.

The University of Cape Town is obviously pleased with the press release (see here); however, the launch had its fair share of controversy: Associated Press reporter Michelle Faul posted a story yesterday entitled “South Africa begins AIDS vaccine trial, cuts funds“, which has been taken up by a wide spectrum of especially foreign media.  According to Faul:

“South Africa launched a high-profile trial of an AIDS vaccine created by its own researchers Monday, a proud moment in a nation where government denial, neglect and unscientific responses have helped fuel the world’s worst AIDS crisis.

After a government official lauded the project at a ceremony at Cape Town’s Crossroads shantytown, the scientist leading the research said state funding had been halted.

The contrast between Monday’s hopeful vaccine launch and the revelation of funding cuts raised questions about whether the government was backsliding on its pledge to combat AIDS.

Anna-Lise Williamson, an AIDS researcher at the University of Cape Town, told The Associated Press the clinical trial would continue with U.S. money. But she said South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology had pulled its funding in March, while the project’s other sponsor, the state electricity utility Eskom, did not renew its contract when it expired last year.

Neither government spokesmen nor Eskom immediately returned calls seeking comment about funding cuts.”

In the midst of light, there is darkness…frequently, thanks to ESKOM

I have blogged on my personal view elsewhere; suffice it to say that bad decisions were made, and  9 years worth of momentum has effectively been lost – along with a number of very experienced personnel, and many years worth of accumulated and very relevant experience.

For an illustration of the product pipeline which existed behind the current trial offerings – and which may now never be developed – click here  for published descriptions of our plasmid- and BCG-vectored and virus-like particle (VLP) subunit vaccines.

But who knows, this current trial may even show promise – and then it will all have been worth it.  Let’s live in hope!

Happy Anniversary, Apollo 11!

16 July, 2009

Forty years ago today
Neil Armstrong was just learning to say
A giant leap for all mankind….

Apologies to messrs. Lennon & McCartney – but given my obsessive fascinations with (a) vintage rock, (b) outer space, I just HAD to do that.  One might also diffidently mention here the first decent musical commemoration of the first moon landing, which was of course “For Michael Collins, Jeffery and Me“, on Jethro Tull’s “Benefit” album.

“I’m with you, LEM
It’s just a shame that it had to be you
The mothership is just a blip
From your trip made for two…”

And, of course, added to this is the imperative from my professional obsession with inner space, and the vehicles that ferry genetic material across that: viruses, naturally!

Ten years ago, on the 30th anniversary, I included an interactive panel (called “The Virus as Spacecraft”) in my still-unfinished standalone multimedia teaching vehicle, “An Electronic Introduction to Molecular Virology”, commemmorating the date, and the fact that the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) looked exactly like a T-even phage, and why that should be.

Great presentation, I still think; made using a depiction of T4 coliphage as a machine (packed with floppy disks); official NASA images of Apollo spacecraft, Russell Kightley’s T4 pictures, and Linda Stannard’s EMs of T4, using the legendary “Illuminatus” multimedia suite (now a “legacy product”…B-(, with “In-a-gadda-da-vida” as the opening title backing track.  Ah, me….  I still use it, mind; it’s just that the Web is a much easier vehicle to use these days, and students’ access is SO much better.

But lest we forget:


H1N1: coming to a South African home near you, soon

14 July, 2009

And after a very pleasant holiday, I come back to work to find…85 cases of confirmed pandemic H1N1 in South Africa!

Yes, it is true – at least, as far as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) Director, Prof Barry Schoub, is concerned: he was featured yesterday on eTV News explaining how it was all going.  And it is “mild” according to him: it looks the same as standard flu, although most cases so far are due to people bringing it into the country, without much community spread…yet

In an article just published by the Independent Online (IOL), Kanina Foss says:

Swine flu cases will probably spike when schools reopen next week. Health officials will monitor schools, but are still advising that mild cases should be treated no differently from seasonal flu.

Only patients with serious symptoms – such as high fever, persistent vomiting, pain in the chest, or shortness of breath – should seek medical assistance. These are symptoms that people would seek medical assistance for anyway, says National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) deputy director Lucille Blumberg.

The number of confirmed swine flu cases in South Africa is 75 [since modified, see above]. Once this number reaches 100, the NICD will stop counting. It will focus instead on severe cases and those at high risk because of compromised immune systems, such as HIV-positive people.  The institute will also monitor schools.  Counting cases was resource intensive, said the NICD on Monday, and served no more purpose than counting cases of seasonal flu. The overwhelming majority of cases worldwide had been mild, and had required no special treatment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said the spread of the H1N1 virus is inevitable, and the NICD is expecting many more South Africans will be infected. It is unsure how the country’s high HIV prevalence will affect the severity of infections.

“It’s something we need to monitor very carefully,” said Blumberg.

The highest number of confirmed cases are in Gauteng (39), followed by the Eastern Cape (nine), and Western Cape (five).

Oh, and in my other persona, a post on AIDS denialism….