The first people have received an experimental mRNA HIV vaccine

Moderna is hoping its mRNA technology will succeed where other HIV vaccines failed.
A clinician readies a vaccine for injection.
Moderna's clinical trials are officially underway for the first HIV vaccine of its kind. Unsplash

Moderna announced last week that it has begun dosing its first participants in Phase I clinical trials for an HIV vaccine that uses the same mRNA technology as the company’s COVID-19 vaccine. 

The company, which is conducting the trial in partnership with the nonprofit International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), hopes the trial will confirm whether the vaccine can deliver HIV-specific antigens to the body and induce an immune response. 

Researchers will study 56 HIV-negative adults for six months. Forty-eight of the volunteers will receive at least one dose of the primary vaccine, 32 of whom will also receive the booster. The remaining eight will receive the booster vaccine alone. The first participants were just vaccinated at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.

With mRNA-based vaccines, such as the one being tested, mRNA strands enter human cells and take our immune systems on a test run. This gives immune cells a heads up for what they can expect if they encounter a virus. This process works incredibly well against SARS-CoV-2, and so there’s hope that it may be protective against HIV as well. 

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“We are tremendously excited to be advancing this new direction in HIV vaccine design with Moderna’s mRNA platform,” Mark Feinberg, president and CEO of IAVI, said in a statement. “The search for an HIV vaccine has been long and challenging, and having new tools in terms of immunogens and platforms could be the key to making rapid progress toward an urgently needed, effective HIV vaccine.”

Researchers have long sought a vaccine to protect against HIV. Various medications and treatments mean that HIV prognosis is often manageable, and no longer the death sentence it once was—but HIV is notoriously difficult to vaccinate against.

The virus integrates itself into the human genome within 72 hours of transmission, producing an irreversible infection. Many previous attempts to create a vaccine have made it to the clinical trial phase, but later failed as they didn’t generate high enough protective antibodies at a fast enough rate to completely prevent infection.