SAN ANTONIO, Texas (KXAN) — The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded nearly $4 million to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute to further develop a “promising” HIV vaccine candidate.

HIV continues to be a large public health threat — the virus affected nearly 40 million people worldwide in 2021. HIV is elusive and ever-changing, which makes it challenging for researchers to develop an effective vaccine with the current technology, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Marie-Claire Gauduin, a researcher with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, has been developing a novel approach to HIV vaccine development for the last 10 years. The new NIH grant will allow Gauduin and her team to continue their research for another four years. So far, their research has yielded promising results in non-human primates, according to a Texas Biomedical Research Institute press release.

“I am excited to move forward, and hope to get to the preclinical stage for human trials,” Gauduin said in the release.

How it works

Part of the challenge of developing a new HIV vaccine is that it spreads throughout the body within days of the infection, reaching peak viral levels within two weeks. Gaudin’s vaccine targets the area where the virus is most likely to enter the body — the interior lining of the vagina and rectum — and stimulates production of antibodies in those areas, according to the release. 

“I had this idea as a postdoc,” Gauduin said. “I thought it had to be naïve because nobody was talking about it. It was so obvious and simple to me; I thought someone would have already done it.”

“I did not think it would work so well, but it did,” she said in the release.

In previous studies, Gauduin found that vaccinated nonhuman primates took much longer to become infected with SIV — the monkey equivalent of HIV — than the unvaccinated group, according to the release. The vaccinated animals eventually became infected after repeat exposures, but they could control the infection. Futher, there were no signs or symptoms of disease and no detectable levels of SIV in the blood.

“So potentially we have developed a therapeutic vaccine that can control HIV with one dose, no boosting required, compared to daily antiretroviral pills,” Gauduin said in the release.

Gauduin will test her vaccine next on larger animals, to ensure it is safe and efficacious, before moving forward to human clinical trials. 

There have been over 250 HIV vaccine trials, many in early stages, and only around 10 have advanced to the point of assessing vaccine efficacy, according to John Hopkins University.

People who are at risk of contracting HIV can take PrEP, which reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99% when taken as prescribed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.