Amsterdam is hosting the 22nd edition of the International AIDS Conference this week: AIDS 2018. More than 18,000 people (including researchers, medical specialists and policymakers) from over 180 countries have travelled to the Netherlands to attend this conference, held at the RAI Amsterdam conference and convention centre. They have excellent reason to do so.
AIDS continues to be a major global killer. More than 33 million people worldwide have been infected with HIV, which causes AIDS. Some HIV-positive people seem to have the virus under control, but the majority of patients end up dying of it. In other words, the further development of powerful vaccines continues to be extremely important.
Epidemic continues unabated
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) destroys the body's immune system. There are relatively expensive antiviral medications on the market that can somewhat keep this process at bay, but scientists have not yet managed to halt the epidemic. It seems that only vaccines will be able to counteract the spread of HIV. Therefore, a significant part of our research is focused on the mechanism(s) of action of vaccines against HIV.
How we conduct research on AIDS
Only humans and chimpanzees are susceptible to HIV. However, macaques have proved to be susceptible to an HIV-like virus called SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus), which presents in much the same way as HIV does in humans. Studying this primate model allows us to examine the biological and pathological aspects of HIV. Scientists are not only doing so by infecting macaques with SIV, but they have also managed to insert SIV into an HIV shell. This allows them to test vaccines that target the exterior of HIV cells.
Two focus areas
A significant portion of research on AIDS/HIV vaccines is focused on two specific areas: 1) finding the best possible combinations of HIV proteins to be used in potential vaccines, and 2) optimising the way in which these proteins can be presented to the body's immune system.
BPRC focuses on the development of vaccination strategies involving new combinations of HIV proteins. This means: 1) research on prophylactic vaccines for non-infected people, preventing them from being infected, and 2) research on vaccines for HIV-positive people, which will allow the immune system to keep the infection at bay or eliminate it altogether.
What we are seeking to achieve
We mainly focus on the mechanism(s) of action of vaccines against HIV, and of vaccines that provide protection against an experimental infection with a particular virus. The question we seek to answer through our research projects is as follows: which mechanism(s) of action or activity of the immune system is/are responsible for protecting the body from harm? We call this the ‘correlate of protection’. Every bit of knowledge we gain may constitute a new step towards a more powerful vaccine against AIDS and HIV.