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HIV & AIDS Health Center

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AIDS/Smallpox Vaccine OK in Early Test

AIDS Vaccine That Protects Monkeys Looks Good in First Human Test
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 9, 2007 -- An AIDS vaccine that uses a genetically engineered smallpox virus to boost anti-HIV immunity looks promising in early tests on humans.

In animal tests, the vaccine did not protect monkeys against infection with an AIDS virus. But vaccinated animals remained healthy -- and suffered no immune damage from the deadly virus.

Now, nine humans have received small doses of the vaccine: about one-tenth of the full dose. The vaccine was safe. And even at this tiny dose, it stimulated the kind of immune responses that protected monkeys.

The vaccine is the brainchild of Harriet Robinson, MD, chief of microbiology and immunology at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Robinson is chief scientific advisor to GeoVax Labs Inc. of Atlanta, spun off from Emory University's vaccine center to market the vaccine.

"One of the big questions has been, 'Sure, you show promising immune responses in monkeys, but will you get it in people?' Now we have this result in humans, with just one tenth of a dose; it is very exciting," Robinson tells WebMD.

Michael Keefer, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Rochester, New York, helped test the vaccine through the NIH-sponsored HIV Vaccine Trials Network, for which he is associate director for scientific administration.

"We are very encouraged with Dr. Robinson's approach," Keefer tells WebMD. "She has some of the strongest data in her animal models as anyone. And the results look pretty good from this, the very earliest human trial of the vaccine."

AIDS Vaccine From Smallpox Vaccine

It's a two-part vaccine. First, a person gets two doses of a DNA vaccine carrying three important HIV genes called env, gag, and pol. Then a person gets two doses of a smallpox virus genetically engineered to carry the same three HIV genes.

The smallpox component of the vaccine makes it unique. The virus, called the modified Ankara virus or MVA, cannot replicate in humans and cannot cause disease. It was used in the waning days of the successful global smallpox eradication program to safely vaccinate some 120,000 people in Germany.

A side benefit of the GeoVax vaccine is that recipients will become immune to smallpox, should that virus return via bioterror attack or lab accident.

But the main reason for using the smallpox virus is that it is one of the most powerful stimulators of immunity known to man. And it seems that when the virus carries HIV genes, those powerful immune responses transfer to HIV as well.

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