Biotech company Moderna, the same company behind one of the COVID-19 vaccines, is expected to start human trials this week for two mRNA-based HIV vaccines, according to the National Institutes of Health's clinical trial registry. Researchers have investigated for years the potential of mRNA vaccines for human use, and after seeing the success of Pfizer's and Moderna's mRNA COVID-19 vaccinations, Moderna will move forward with Phase I of its study.
The Phase I trial will include 56 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 50 who do not currently have HIV. The study will test the vaccine's safety and will collect data on whether it is effective or not at inducing any kind of immunity. From there, the shot will have to go through Phases II and III to determine its effectiveness and the risks and benefits of the treatment.
The shots are based on the same technology as Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine, wherein the mRNA strands enter human cells and provide them with the code to reproduce the same proteins that exist on the virus' exterior, Popular Science reports. Once introduced to the body, an individual's immune system will start to recognize the proteins so that the body can identify and attack the virus in the future. Because the mRNA vaccine has been successful with the COVID-19 virus, researchers are hopeful the same could be true with HIV treatment.
A number of potential HIV vaccines have been introduced over the years, only to be shelved during clinical trials for failing to adequately prevent the virus, PinkNews reports. Others were discontinued due to safety concerns. Until this point, scientists have not found a vaccine for HIV, but have found some success in treatments like antiretroviral therapy, or ART, which involves taking a combination of HIV medications every day. While ART doesn't cure HIV, it can help people who have the virus to live longer and reduces the risk of transmission.
Over the last decade, health officials have advocated for the use of PrEP, a life-saving daily pill that is 99% effective at preventing HIV infections. Some health insurance providers didn't cover the cost of treatment until a federal guidance mandated last month that all providers cover it. Still, the treatment, which can cost upwards of $1,800 per month to the uninsured, remains out of reach to people who don't have access to healthcare coverage.
"We don't have universal health insurance in the United States," James Krellenstein of the advocacy group PrEP4All told NPR. "So the real challenge today, the next challenge in PrEP access, is going to figure out what policies the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services can put into place to ensure that those people can also access PrEP as easily as people with insurance."
As Moderna prepares to launch its clinical trials this week, researchers are hopeful the mRNA system can improve the production of cells and antibodies necessary to fight the virus.