Even today in 2018, AIDS continues to be a very serious disease. More than 33 million people have been infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and another 1.6 million were diagnosed in 2016. Nonetheless, a great deal of progress has been achieved over the years, particularly in keeping the disease under control. These results are thanks in part to the chimpanzees used for biomedical research, though use of these primates as laboratory animals has been prohibited since 2006
'The research done on chimpanzees generated a huge amount of valuable information about the HIV virus', says Willy Bogers, Head of Virology at the BPRC. 'The most striking result was the fact that chimpanzees never developed AIDS when infected with the virus in experimental conditions, and were able to suppress the virus naturally. The big question was why chimps are able to do this when humans can’t and which mechanisms are involved. Unfortunately, this is a question that we'll never be able to answer. That said, we do know that the chimp immune system has real predictive value. It’s almost identical to the human immune system. These primates made an important contribution to research on and our understanding of HIV infections.'
Similar clinical picture
Willy says that chimpanzees were the only animal model (besides humans) that could be subjected to the HIV virus. 'AIDS research would never have progressed as far as it has without chimpanzees. The primates we work with now are not susceptible to HIV viruses, but they are to SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus), a HIV-like virus that presents a clinical picture similar to that in humans. This primate model enables us to research the biology and pathology of the HIV virus, not only by infecting macaques with the SIV virus, but also by 'dressing up' the SIV virus as HIV. This makes it possible to test vaccines that target the exterior of the HIV virus.'
Potential new vaccines
At an AIDS conference in Amsterdam this past summer, it was evident that the scientific community is continuing to make promising strides, as borne out by this report. 'Gradually, potential new vaccines are being developed and tested', Willy continues. 'An effective vaccine won't come overnight; it's a very incremental process. Fortunately, in recent years AIDS has devolved from a fatal to a chronic disease, thanks to the development and use of antiviral drugs.'
Emphasis on prevention
The AIDS research being done at BPRC focuses primarily on contributing to the development of new vaccines. 'Once infected, the virus remains in the human body. These days, it's possible to keep the disease under control using the drugs available. Research on primates was and will continue to be important for the development and administration of new HIV drugs. However, people are still dying of AIDS in countries where there is no access to these drugs. We are involved in the development of a vaccine that would avoid infection altogether. That would mean the virus never even has a chance to enter and establish itself in the body. This is a very different approach, with an emphasis on prevention. The knowledge we're gaining through our research is a new step towards the development of stronger vaccines in the fight against AIDS and HIV.'