PHILADELPHIA (July 20, 2009) A team of researchers from The Wistar Institute and the University of Pennsylvania reports new evidence refuting a popular hypothesis about the highly publicized failure in 2007 of the Merck STEP HIV vaccine study that cast doubt on the feasibility of HIV-1 vaccines. The findings were published on-line July 20 in Nature Medicine.
The phase II STEP vaccine trial was stopped after an interim analysis showed no efficacy in preventing HIV infection in at-risk individuals. It was noted that a subset of participants who had previous immunity in the form of neutralizing antibodies to the adenovirus 5 (Ad5) vector used to deliver the vaccine actually showed a trend toward an increased rate of HIV infection. Finding an explanation for this increased susceptibility to infection remains a major focus for HIV vaccine researchers.
These individuals were found to have high blood Ad5 neutralizing antibody (nAb) titers, the main immune gatekeeper in most vaccine strategies. Antibodies produced in response to previous infection neutralize viruses by binding to them and preventing their entry into host cells. They work in concert with other immune cells, including CD4 T-cells, which build a memory bank against future infection. In HIV infection, the virus attaches specifically to CD4 receptors on activated CD4 T-cells, establishing a stronghold and replicating.
Of the STEP findings, many researchers hypothesize that the T-cells of individuals in this high-Ad5-antibody group were activated by the Ad5-vaccine vector, creating more activated CD4 T-cells which then served as targets for the HIV virus to establish an infection.
"Our findings disprove the favored hypothesis," says co-lead author Hildegund C.J. Ertl, M.D., director of The Wistar Institute Vaccine Center. "There was nothing to indicate that pre-existing neutralizing antibodies correlated with numbers of activated CD4 T-cells to Ad5, which could
|Contact: Susan I. Finkelstein|
The Wistar Institute