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Russian scientists hoping for "revolution" with AIDS vaccine trial

posted 4 Jan 2011, 09:45 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 4 Jan 2011, 09:47 ]

A group of researchers at St. Petersburg State Medical University in Russia is staging the first human clinical trials of an AIDS vaccine in Russia. According to the United Nations, Russia is home to approximately 600,000 people - mostly men - living with HIV through intravenous drug use.

The trials are taking place with human volunteers and are the first of three phases monitoring what type of immune response an HIV/AIDS vaccine developed by Russian professor Andrei Kozlov produces in 21 otherwise healthy human volunteers. The vaccine, called "DNA vaccine pBMC-120" is of a type believed to hold great promise AIDS researchers worldwide.

Scientists have been working on finding a vaccine since 1997, during which time, many scientific and technological questions in vaccine production have been answered.

Development of this latest vaccine builds on those scientific discoveries, Kozov says, making an individualised, easily handled prophylactic possible

"We chose the right design of the vaccine. And its main difference from the other vaccines used in the rest of the world is that we use the genes of the Russian isolate of the virus. That is, we're making the vaccine which can adapt to local viruses. And that's very important," Kozlov said.

In Russia, more than half a million people had AIDS as of 2010, with 30,000 to 40,000 dying annually as a result of the collapse of the Soviet era healthcare system and an increase of intravenous drug use, Kozlov says. Of the two million people estimated by Russian authorities to be using intravenous drugs, 35 percent are thought to be infected with HIV. Without a vaccine, Kozlov says, the numbers will increase dramatically.

After finding the vaccine to be safe in animals, doctors began testing the first human volunteers in November. Twenty-one otherwise healthy people are receiving various concentrations of the vaccine to test the type of immune responses it produces. Kozlov says the research is demanding, requiring a highly-developed scientific approach, but if successful will have applications for future vaccines of all kinds.

"It appears that in working on the AIDS vaccine we are in fact working on the overall attitude to chronic diseases. In this way, if we can solve the problems of prophylactic vaccines against AIDS, then we will have a huge breakthrough in the cure of other diseases," Kozlov said.

The vaccine is a specially-made medication that contains four components of the HIV virus which cannot combine to make full-fledged HIV DNA, says testing coordinator Tatyana Krasnoselskaya, who is monitoring the first phase of volunteers. Although there is no fear of the virus forming inside a human when it is injected, she says, potential volunteers were initially skeptical.

"Many people refused to take part in the tests as soon as they heard the word 'HIV.' Of course the word is scary. But in general, the attitude to this infection has changed significantly lately. People have become more tolerant, and if the vaccine is made, we hope that it will make a revolution," Krasnoselskaya said.

The first phase of testing on human subjects will continue throughout the month of January. If funding is stable, the second and third phases of the trial will steadily increase the number of volunteers in the next few years.

"In the second phase, about 100 will take part. Thousands of risk group representatives will take part, or at least hundreds, in the third phase. So it's going to be a big group in order to get real, statistically-proven figures," Krasnoselskaya said.

Kozlov said if the trials are successful, a vaccine could be ready in 2-3 years.