There are many reasons to develop a vaccine to protect people from HIV, the cause of Aids. There is the humanitarian rationale: every tool available must be put to use to stop a virus that has, over the past three decades, taken more than 30 million lives and infected at least twice as many people the world over. There is also the practical one: vaccines are the most-effective preventive interventions in the public health arsenal.
Despite three decades of efforts, researchers have still not developed a vaccine capable of providing robust protection from HIV. There are many reasons for this but, more than anything else, it is HIV's extreme mutability that poses the greatest challenge to both the human immune response and vaccine designers. The genetic changes of HIV mislead and confuse the immune response. This complicates attempts to devise vaccines that must train the immune system to detect the virus and destroy it before it establishes a lifelong infection.
The good news is that in just the past three years, HIV researchers have made remarkable headway in solving this problem. A clinical trial in Thailand, completed in 2009, provided the first proof that vaccines can provide protection from HIV. Meanwhile, researchers affiliated with a variety of institutions around the world, including the International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) have discovered and analysed dozens of antibodies that neutralise a broad range of circulating HIV variants. These broadly neutralising antibodies-bNAbs in immunological parlance are providing important clues to the design of a new generation of HIV vaccine candidates.
Indian researchers have played an important role in these efforts. Two leading public laboratories in this country have for years participated in the Neutralising Antibody Consortium (NAC), which IAVI launched in 2002 to seek out new bNAbs and analyse their mechanisms of action. With such information in hand, HIV researchers hope to create immunogens - the active ingredients of vaccines - that might elicit similar antibodies and so prevent HIV from establishing infection. In partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, IAVI has also funded an Indian biotechnology company that worked with the NAC to apply sophisticated computational models to solve some of the molecular structures targeted by previously identified bNAbs.
Indeed, cognizant of India's wealth of scientific talent, many institutions involved in the global Aids vaccine effort now consider India an important partner. IAVI, in particular, has worked over the past decade with India's medical research institutions in Chennai and Pune to conduct the nation's first human trials of the Aids vaccine.
Recently, the government acknowledged the launch of the new HIV Vaccine Translational Research Laboratory. Established by the department of biotechnology in partnership with the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI) and IAVI, the programme will develop new methods to generate large numbers of immunogens and rapidly assess their potential for use in HIV vaccines devised to elicit bNAbs. The programme's open-door policy for collaboration with Indian researchers and industry could promote innovation in India's burgeoning biotechnology sector. Most importantly, though, it gives Indian researchers an opportunity to develop an indigenous vaccine against a disease that continues to threaten their compatriots.
Margaret McGlynn is president and CEO, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative
The views expressed by the author are personal