'The HIV vaccine is an international effort' states HIVACAT Scientific Director Christian Brander
Christian Brander is a researcher at the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute and Scientific Director of HIVACAT, the programme for the development of a HIV vaccine. He graduated from the University of Bern in 1994 with a PhD in Immunology and has spent 13 years at Harvard University focusing on cellular immunity to viral infections.
Barcelona (CNA).- Christian Brander is a researcher at the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute and Scientific Director of HIVACAT, the programme for the development of an HIV vaccine. He graduated from the University of Bern in 1994 with a PhD in Immunology and has spent 13 years at Harvard University focusing on cellular immunity to viral infections.
What is HIVACAT?
HIVACAT is a public-private partnership for the development of the HIV vaccine that includes IRSICAIXA, here at the Germans Trias i Pujol Hospital and at the Hospital Clínic. HIVACAT is made up of La Caixa, the Catalan Government and Esteve, a pharmaceutical company. Aside from this, it has its own funding sources that come from national, international and European programmes. Most of this funding is dedicated towards supporting the work of sixty people who are investigating how to find a potential HIV vaccine.
What are you working on?
Put very briefly, we are working on a HIV vaccine for prevention and another one for therapeutic use. Preventive vaccination is to prevent infection; we give a vaccine to a healthy person so that person will not become infected. A therapeutic vaccine is a vaccine supplied to a person who is already HIV-infected in order to modulate their immunity response so that they can live longer without taking medication.
How are they supposed to work?
As for the preventive vaccine we need to induce antibodies, that is, molecules that deactivate the virus and neutralise it. In order to make these antibodies you also need to make an adequate T-cell immune response. T-cells are white blood cells that help the P-cells, which are the ones that make the antibodies. So you need both elements, the T-cells and the P-cells in a preventive vaccine.
What about a therapeutic vaccine?
In a therapeutic vaccine you are likely to need more of these T-cells because in this case we have infected cells that we need to kill. These T-cells not only help the P-cells but can work directly on infected cells and kill them. That’s how we hope to get rid of the virus in people that are already infected. So at HIVACAT we are working in both fields, to try and make a T-cell vaccine and a P-cell vaccine, to put both things together to make a single vaccine. That is where we are now.
How do you work together?
We work very closely and aim to complement each other. Hospital Clínic has a very strong department working on P-cell development. At the IrsiCaixa we also have a P-cell group so we are constantly talking to each other to improve our research. The Hospital Clínic has a specific approach to the therapeutic vaccine which can be used in infected individuals and we have clinically tested two cases already.
At what point of the research project are you now?
Now we have P-cell immunogens, a part of the virus that is present in the vaccine. One of the many possibilities is to take a part of the HIV virus and put it into a round circle of DNA pieces. Then we inject a virus vaccine like varicella into the body that will induce a response to the HIV element that was injected previously. There are many other options as well as DNA. For example, the immunogen we have developed here induces T-cell responses. We have come up with a very specific design that only 20% of the virus contains a specific section of the virus able to induce a powerfully active T-cell response against the virus. What we have done so far is to identify P-cell and T-cell immunogen in a DNA placement and we have done so through preclinical testing. We are observing fairly good responses and we are very happy with what we have seen so far. Now we are taking that relatively big step towards clinical testing. We are lucky in HIVACAT because we have strong partners and right now we have the money to move at least one of the candidate vaccines into clinical testing. Now we need to find the right candidate and hopefully in 2014 we can start the clinical production.
How does HIVACAT connect to the rest of the international scientific community?
IRSI Caixa and Hospital Clínic are extremely well recognised at world level and here there are many researchers who have been working abroad. For example, I have worked in Boston for 13 years and I still know everybody in the field in the US. International exchange is constant and the HIV vaccine is an international effort, I don’t think any local lab could achieve it alone. You should not try to do it on your own; we need as many brains as possible to work on the same project.
What is the general perception of HIV?
There is a perception that… well... you can treat it. But treating it means you spend €10,000 per year per person for the rest of their lives. The treatment is good, and the side effects are not too bad either. However, if you think you will need to take medicine for the rest of your life, you had better do something to prevent it. So people need to be reminded that HIV is out there and infections can happen just as they happened 15 years ago. Politicians need to be reminded of this too, because it is too easy to forget about it.
What will the Barcelona AIDS Vaccine 2013 be like?
The HIV vaccine 2013 is the outcome of the international cooperation: what we know and where we need to go. It will take place in October and we want to know who has new concepts, new ideas, etc. It is also a link between individual researchers and the founders. The AIDS Vaccine meeting is organised every year by the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. They have their main HQ in New York and are supported financially with money from different sources such as the NHA or the Gates Foundation.