vaccineA new €23 million initiative to accelerate the search for an effective HIV has vaccine begun. Financed by the European Commission, the European AIDS Vaccine Initiative (EAVI2020) brings together leading HIV researchers from public organizations and biotech companies from across Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA in a focused effort to develop protective and therapeutic HIV vaccines.

According to the World Health Organization, around 35 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2013. More than two million people are newly infected every year, and it is estimated that around $22 billion is spent yearly on HIV treatment and care. An effective vaccine remains the best hope of ending the epidemic.

Although researchers have been working on developing a vaccine for 30 years, recent advances are helping to speed up their quest. Scientists have isolated antibodies that are able to block HIV infection in preclinical models, and there have been new developments in using synthetic biology to design better vaccines.

BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals GmbH is a key member of the EAVI2020 consortium, which unites scientists from 22 institutions, pooling their knowledge and expertise to develop novel candidate vaccines that can be taken through to human trials within 5 years. EAVI2020 is funded with an EU-granunder the health programme of Horizon 2020 for research and innovation.

Professor Robin Shattock, co-ordinator of EAVI2020, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, said: “Creating an effective vaccine against HIV represents one of the greatest biological challenges of a generation. This project creates a unique opportunity for us to build on the enormous scientific progress gleaned during the last few years, providing an unprecedented insight into the nature of protective antibodies and antiviral cellular response that will be needed for an effective vaccine. We now understand much more about how humans make protective immune responses and how to structure vaccine candidates. We have a level of understanding at a molecular level that was not previously available.”

“But it is impossible for one group or institution to create an HIV vaccine on its own. This new project should enable us to move much more quickly. It brings together a multidisciplinary team of molecular biologists, immunologists, virologists, biotechnologists and clinicians, providing the breadth of expertise needed to take the latest discoveries in the lab and rapidly advance them through preclinical testing and manufacture, into early human trials,” he added.

BioNTech, the German-based, international biotechnology company, will provide novel, highly immunogenic, prophylactic and therapeutic vaccine candidates for preclinical and clinical testing in HIV. These vaccines are based on BioNTech’s self-amplifying RNA vaccine vector technology, which is ideal for expressing high levels of HIV antigens in vaccine recipients. The self-amplifying RNA vaccine vector technology used in the EAVI2020 consortium promises to be superior to any existing mRNA approaches in infectious disease and is the result of more than 20 years of experience in developing and optimising mRNA-based prophylactic and therapeutic vaccines.

Professor Ugur Sahin, Founder and CEO of BioNTech, said: “We are delighted to be part of this world-class consortium and to collaborate with leading experts from around the globe in the field of anti-infective vaccine development. This project has great potential and will allow us to develop a completely new class of highly potent, self-amplifying RNA vaccines for the effective prevention and treatment of HIV infection.”

Dr Ruxandra Draghia-Akli, Director of the Health Directorate at the Directorate General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission, said: “In its dual role of policy maker and research funder, the European Commission has played an essential part for more than 30 years in supporting HIV vaccine research. Despite major global investments in the field and the promising progress, several scientific obstacles have to be overcome to develop novel promising HIV vaccine candidates. It is with this in mind that the European Commission is providing an almost €23 million grant to the EAVI2020 consortium from which we have high hopes for success. This will allow European scientists to work together and in collaboration with researchers from outside Europe to successfully develop predictive tools and better vaccine candidates to be tested at an early stage of the process.”