Health Team

UNC researchers studying antibodies to develop HIV vaccine

Posted December 1, 2017 12:32 p.m. EST
Updated December 1, 2017 5:02 p.m. EST

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have launched a new study to develop a vaccine to combat AIDS.

World AIDS Day has been observed each Dec. 1 since 1998 to raise awareness about of the AIDS pandemic. The disease, caused by the spread of the HIV infection, has killed 35 million people to date, according to researchers. UNC infectious disease expert Dr. Myron Cohen hopes his work with antibodies could be a major stepping stone to developing a vaccine.

"We need better tools, biological tools that prevent the acquisition of HIV," Cohen said.

Anthony Williams, 30, is HIV-negative, but as a gay man, he's at higher risk for infection. He enrolled in a multi-national study with a trial site at UNC to test a product that could lead to an HIV vaccine.

"I've always been a big believer that we can't find any advancements in medicine unless we can offer ourself," Williams said.

Special drugs can now help suppress HIV activity in the body, but researchers are now focused on the next step.

Cohen is the protocol chair of the Antibody Mediated Prevention of HIV study at the university. Researchers hope to enroll in the study more than 5,000 volunteers who would receive 10 infusions—one infusion every two months—of a neutralizing "monoclonal antibody."

Dr. Cynthia Gay, another researcher in the study, said the antibodies act as a sort of barrier around the HIV virus.

"(Antibodies) bind to the outside of the HIV virus itself so that it's not able to attach to our cells and get inside our cells, which is when HIV infection actually occurs," Gay said.

The antibodies come from people who are among 10 percent of the population whose bodies are able to produce antibodies faster to effectively fight the virus.

The research has given scientists a better road map for a vaccine.

"If we know what's required for a vaccine, it's a huge step in vaccine development," Cohen said.

It's a time-consuming protocol for participants like Williams, but he said the cause is worth it.

"So, to be a part of that journey of discovery is exciting for me," Williams said.

The AMP study is funded by the National Institutes of Health and run by its two HIV research networks: the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) and the HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN). Dr. Myron Cohen is the principal investigator of the HPTN and Dr. Cynthia Gay is the lead at the UNC site for the AMP study.

The research effort is part of UNC’s Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases. For more information about being in prevention studies: Click here.