GeoVax: Meeting the HIV vaccine challenge

A vaccine against HIV has been the target for research since the emergence of HIV/AIDS and the isolation of the HIV (then HTLV III) virus back in 1983, but it has been difficult to create a vaccine that can trigger an antibody response capable of blocking HIV infection. GeoVax Labs ($GOVX) is an Atlanta-based biopharma company developing two-component vaccines to prevent and treat HIV based on a vaccine technology exclusively licensed from Emory University.

"The development of HIV vaccines has been slow, because the research community had to determine what genetic material would trigger both an antibody and a T cell response. Many times you need to find out what doesn't work first, but the research is now speeding up," says Robert McNally, Ph.D., president and CEO of GeoVax, in an interview with FierceVaccines.

The next challenge is to create a vaccine that can stimulate high enough levels of antibodies and T cells, and GeoVax is using a two-stage vaccination program, with a DNA vaccine prime and an attenuated virus MVA vaccine booster. GeoVax's first-generation vaccine is in Phase IIa trials, with a second-generation version, entering Phase I testing, that includes a GM-CSF adjuvant to boost the immune response further. The vaccine has potential as a therapeutic, given to HIV-positive people who may then be able to reduce or stop their medication, as well as a prophylactic.

"HIV medications alone don't eradicate the virus, but only affect its replication--we are looking at a two-pronged attack, by combining a therapeutic vaccine and chemotherapy. Our approach could save money, as well as improving the quality of life for HIV-positive people--HIV medications cost thousands or tens of thousands dollars a year, and you can get a lot of vaccine for that! We are still at the embryonic stage of therapeutic vaccines, but ultimately I believe that these will be successful. We are learning a lot and it's very exciting." -- Suzanne Elvidge (email)