Amidst the caution signs and endless white-walled hallways, the Siebens Drake Research Institute at Western holds a high promise of hope for those diagnosed as HIV positive.
At the very end of the hall is a bright yellow door leading into an office and laboratory where the head researcher on the HIV vaccine — Dr. Chil-Yong Kang — sits. Kang is a world renowned virologist who has been working towards a cure for HIV since 2006.
“I receive letters and emails from all over the world just due to my published work,” Kang says.
These letters demonstrate just how many individuals are observing his work and hoping for a cure. Most letters he receives are from HIV positive patients looking to volunteer in the next human trials.
Kang could potentially be responsible for a vaccine that treats tens of millions of people worldwide, and that comes with a lot pressure and pride. Kang is hopeful that despite the high competition surrounding creating an HIV vaccine, his vaccine will be the first successful one.
According to Kang, the reason why an HIV vaccine is so much more difficult to find is that there are three commercial vaccines with various uses.
“One is not an option for an HIV vaccine because when it reproduces it makes pro-viral DNA and that may create adverse effects. The second option, people have tried and it did not work. The third, is to kill the whole virus and that is the one we are using.”
However, despite such progress, Kang states two issues they encountered with their vaccine. “The first one is that people do not know how to produce large quantities, and the second is when you produce larger quantities it can become too dangerous.”
However, Kang has already found solutions to these issues by genetically modifying the HIV gene through using a honey bee toxin called melittin — the principal active component in the venom.
With their vaccine SAV001 passing phase one, there are only two more phases before it can become available to the masses. Kang says the vaccine proves that it's safe through its phase one results, which tested on 33-HIV positive individuals.
All 33 patients that participated in the vaccine trial had no adverse effects, giving it a go-ahead for the next phases. Phase two will test on 600 individuals worldwide, and the last phase revolves around the ethics of the vaccine through the Food and Drug Administration.
The stigma of HIV is still alive and well, which is unfortunate for all those living with the disease. So why is HIV so much more stigmatized than other diseases such as cancer and diabetes? Kang says the issue has been prominent through “sexual intercourse of MSM [men having sex with men], contamination of needles, people living with HIV positive partners and commercial sex workers.”
Society did not want to accept gay sexual behaviour three and a half decades ago, and therefore people found the individual at fault.
“People are rather reluctant to associate with those who are HIV positive,” Kang goes on to say. But this vaccine would de-stigmatize the disease while also saving billions of dollars.
For the average individual living with HIV, it costs upward of $14,000 per patient per year for just the drugs, according to Kang. This is a steep price that is luckily covered under the Canadian health care system — a luxury that those in developing countries do not have.
Considering the thousands of people diagnosed with HIV in Canada, this is a high price for the government to pay. But Kang's best estimate is that the overall expenses will reach roughly 700 billion in the next 20 years if no vaccine is brought into the market, though he admits it is too early to give an estimate cost on the vaccine for an individual.
Kang says he predicts a vaccine could be available in about six or seven years’ time, although hopefully sooner.
“It's going to work; it is just a matter of time.”
Correction (Feb. 17, 2017):
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of people with HIV in Canada as in the millions. The number is actually in the thousands in Canada. The article has been updated to reflect this, The Gazette regrets the error.
Clarification (Feb. 22, 2017):
The goal of Dr. Kang's vaccine research is not directed towards a cure of HIV. Kang's whole killed virus experimental vaccine is intended to prevent HIV infection in those who are negative.
In a phase 1 trial, he tested the safety of the experimental vaccine in a small number of people who are positive because whole killed vaccines pose risks of infection and also other potential adverse effects.
Kang's theory that people with HIV would be a model to test safety applicable to those without HIV should be looked at critically. His proposed next phase is to recruit people who do not have HIV.