Cape Town — Local biotechnology company Elevation Biotech has entered into a partnership with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) to pursue its research into developing a jab against the disease.
In the 25 years since HIV was identified as the cause of AIDS,
23-million people have died and another 33-million are now infected . Despite worldwide effort, a vaccine that could protect people against infection has proven elusive.
The grant from IAVI's Innovation Fund follows its decision to shift resources towards basic scientific research, after the failure of several large clinical trials testing candidate AIDS vaccines that had all relied on a similar approach.
They tried to stimulate the body to produce T-cells which would destroy cells already infected by HIV. A recent example was Merck's MRKAd5 candidate vaccine, which was tested in SA in the Phambili trial.
Like many other research groups around the world, Elevation Biotech is pursuing a different strategy, one that aims to identify HIV antigens that will prompt the body to produce antibodies capable of neutralising the virus. Most vaccines that are used for other diseases rely on this approach, but scientists are still struggling to find a way to produce HIV antibodies.
"If Elevation's (proprietary) technology can produce an antigen that will induce the production of HIV neutralising antibodies in humans, it will revolutionise HIV vaccine development," said principal investigator Prof Wendy Stevens from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and National Health Laboratory Service.
She emphasised that Elevation's work was at an early stage, and researchers were still working with mice. Candidate vaccines are first tested in the lab, then in animals, and only then in humans.
Elevation is a spin-off company from Wits that is supported by a three-year R11,5m grant from LifeLab, one of the science and technology department's biotechnology incubators. IAVI declined to disclose the size of its grant to Elevation, saying only that its Innovation Fund had an initial three-year commitment of $10m, half of which was financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The announcement of the partnership comes on the eve of an AIDS Vaccine Conference, which opens in Cape Town today. The meeting has attracted the world's leading experts on the quest for a vaccine. "Our investment in South African biotechnology is starting to pay off," Deputy Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said.