For decades now, a vaccine for HIV has been heralded as a paramount development within the medical community… and rightly so! Our friends over at the Oakland, California-based Non-Profit, Immunity Project, are taking those hopes for a “cure” to an entirely new level and we are happy to have at least helped to further deepen their research. Plus, the Immunity Project plans to make the vaccine free! Cofounder and CEO, Dr. Reid Rubsamen would be the first to say that what they are doing  is very different than what developing a cure has historically entailed.

The Immunity Project’s team, consisting of scientists trained at Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT, is making strides in providing a revolutionary approach to developing a vaccine for HIV. Historically, HIV vaccine research has primarily focused on propagating a neutralizing antibody vaccine that would work in similar to the way most vaccines are used today. This approach has proven to be quite troublesome when dealing with HIV due to the frequently mutating nature of the virus. The Immunity Project takes, what some might call, a rogue approach to dealing with this issue.

“This is the ultimate application of informatics to medicine. So much vaccine design since 1953 has been based on neutralizing antibodies, but that legacy approach doesn’t work for HIV. The virus is too smart and can mutate so quickly. We are doing something very different.”

– Dr. Reid Rubsamen, Co-Founder & CEO

Dr. Reid Rubsamen, Co-Founder & CEO

The Immunity Project’s approach targets a sub-group of HIV patients known as  “Controllers”. These individuals are born with a natural immunity to HIV. This select group of one out of every three hundred people living with HIV carries low levels of the virus in a dormant state, thus creating an “immunity” for the host to the HIV/AIDS virus. The innate presence of the virus gives the host’s immune system the ability to recognize HIV peptides as a virus and attack it. Not only will the host attack the virus, a controller’s immune system naturally attack the virus at it’s weakest points. This is where Dr. Rubsamen’s team really kicks their findings into high-gear. Using data derived from an algorithm that sorts through the seemingly endless number of combinations of HIV genome and human immune system genetic data to decipher how controllers are able to keep HIV dormant, a select group of peptides (called epitopes) are used in the vaccine in the hopes of stimulating the immune system to become “controller like”. Keep in mind that all of this work has yet to reach clinical trials, with majority of their findings relating to cells from mice. Results from these early-stage tests have been very positive though, and those results can be exemplified by the Immunity Project hitting their crowd-funding campaign goal of $462,000! This campaign will help the Immunity Project fund its final experiment before it begins the first phase of clinical trials.

It is clear that there are still years of work to be conducted before we are able to reap the benefits of this research. There are many regulations as well as checks and balances that have to take place before we see a final product. If we see this product come to fruition, this will certainly be one of the biggest victories in the battle against HIV/AIDS and will be a historically defining moment in immunology.