October 10, 2016

Research Roundup: Flu vaccines, HIV in kids, and a cross-continental R&D partnership

Senior Program Assistant
H1N1 flu virus particles. Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
H1N1 flu virus particles. Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Each year, a new flu vaccine is developed, containing proteins from three to four strains of influenza. These proteins train the immune system to recognize different versions of the virus, enabling a rapid response in the case of infection. For the past eight years, the same strain of H1N1 (swine flu) has been included in flu vaccines globally, however, the World Health Organization has recommended this strain be replaced with a more recent version of the ever-changing virus. Normally, flu vaccines prompt the greatest immune response in healthy adults, however, since 2013, their efficacy has been decreasing in adults aged 30 to 60. The theory? Many of these adults were first exposed to H1N1 between 1977 and 1985, and the strains circulating at that time shared one critical component with those circulating between 2009 and 2013. Consequently, those who had been exposed to H1N1 between 1977 and 1985 responded to the flu vaccine as if it were a booster shot. Rather than producing entirely new antibodies tailored to the new version of the virus, their immune systems ramped up production of the existing antibodies tailored to the old version. In 2013, the virus mutated further, losing the component it shared with older strains, and thus, adults who experienced the booster shot phenomenon were no longer protected by the vaccine. Fortunately, experts have identified a new version of the virus, retrieved from a patient in Michigan, which should provide broader protection against H1N1 for future flu vaccines.

A recent study out of South Africa suggests that one in ten children who are infected with HIV have no immune response to the virus and consequently experience none of the symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS. The researchers analyzed blood samples from 170 children who are HIV positive and have not received treatment, but nonetheless have not developed AIDS. The samples confirmed high volumes of the virus in the blood, and the lack of either an immune response or symptoms demonstrates, “HIV disease is not so much to do with HIV, but with the immune response to it,” according to Dr. Philip Goulder, an author of the study. This response—or lack thereof—has also been reported in more than 40 nonhuman primate species, but has not been seen in adults, who often have more aggressive immune reactions to pathogens. While limited, existing research indicates that some children with this protective attribute develop AIDS as they age, while others continue to display no symptoms. However, treatment may still be needed to prevent further transmission of the virus.

SciDev.Net took an in-depth look at the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) and how its second iteration (EDCTP2) could be a catalyst for increased investments in health research and development (R&D) by African governments. EDCTP was launched in 2003 and ran through 2014, during which time it invested US$425 million into 254 collaborations between African and European scientists. The Partnership funded phase 2 and 3 clinical trials for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. In 2014, EDCTP2 was established, expanding the scope to cover phase 1 and phase 4 (postmarketing surveillance) and to include other neglected infectious diseases. In just two years, EDCTP2 has mobilized nearly US$115 million. The role of the African member countries has been elevated in the second iteration—they have voting rights in the EDCTP General Assembly and have each pledged EUR€200,000 (US$224,000) to the Partnership.