After toiling away in a laboratory for nearly a quarter of a century, Dr. Chil-Yong Kang and his team of researchers are one step closer to injecting Western’s reputation with a dose of global significance.
In December, Kang announced his HIV vaccine had been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration to begin human clinical trials this January—an important milestone for the only vaccine of its kind in Canada.
“We have done all the animal studies, testing in small animals all the way up to non-human primates,” Kang said, emphasizing that the immune response in animals showed very encouraging results. “However, HIV does not cause disease in any known animals—there is no model to study—therefore, we have to try out [the vaccine] in humans.”
At this point, Kang said he can only assume humans will react similarly to the vaccine.
The vaccine works in the sense that it contains no live virus, but a killed whole virus. This process involves producing the HIV virus and then killing the virus. The virus is then introduced to the human body and the human body will react by producing antibodies to protect against infection.
The entire testing process, which involves three phases of human clinical trials, will take roughly five years as researchers cannot purposefully infect subjects with the HIV virus, according to Kang.
“Once we vaccinate people we have to wait for the natural infection. We cannot challenge them with a live virus. It is unethical.”
An estimated 1,100 HIV positive individuals live within Middlesex, Oxford, Perth, Elgin, Huron and Lambton counties, while the worldwide estimate places 34 million people living with the virus—of which 23 million are sub-Saharan Africans.
HIV/AIDS is currently treated with antiretroviral drugs, first developed in the 1990s, which help prolong the life of a person living with the virus.
“It is not a cure, but it can stop people from becoming ill for many years,” Brian Lester, executive director of London’s Regional HIV/AIDS Connection, explained.
Thus, news that Western has a vaccine approved for human trials is very hopeful for those in the community depending on antiretroviral drugs, Lester said.
“The potential development of a successful preventative vaccine is something that [we] and I imagine the rest of the community would be very proud of,” Lester observed. “Given the global implications, I’m sure London’s global profile would soar.”
But Lester and local HIV positive citizens aren’t the only ones tracking Kang’s vaccine.
Claire Holloway Wadhwani is the executive director of the Canada Africa Partnership on AIDS, a non-profit dedicated to reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and providing support to those both living with and affected by the virus. One of her roles is to act as a curator of information about HIV research worldwide.
With 23 million people suffering from AIDS in Africa and an estimated 11 million orphaned children, the virus has reached crisis levels on the continent.
While a lot of work has been done to make treatment drugs more affordable for Africans, Wadhwani said, the annual cost for only one person is still $300 a year, meaning a vaccine would have great implications.
“We’re obviously following very closely the developments with the vaccine trials coming out of [Western],” Wadhwani said, adding she strives to keep partners on the ground in Africa informed of such developments so they’re aware of what may be “coming down the pipe in the coming years.”
But reaching the human trial stage isn’t any predictor of a vaccine’s success, according to Kang, and researchers still have a long way to go before the vaccine is cleared for public distribution.
Many HIV vaccines have made it to the first phase of human trials and failed, never moving on to the second phase.
In fact, Kang recalled three major HIV vaccines have made it to phrase three of human trials in the past ten years—and all failed in the final stage.
But FDA approval is definitely the first step, Kang commented.
“It is very important to us to have this approval from FDA to try out our vaccines in humans. This will certainly put Western on the map for the development of the possible HIV vaccine,” Kang concluded.