VIRxSYS Announces ’Functional Cure’ for AIDS
A functional cure for AIDS may be available for purchase in the next 5 to 7 years, according to Riku Rautsola, who heads VIRxSYS, a biotechnology company based in Gaithersburg, Md. At a recent American Public Health Association (APHA) 138th Annual Meeting & Exposition, Rautsola presented information on therapeutic and preventative HIV vaccines being developed by VIRxSYS. I spoke with Rautsola about this groundbreaking development, and its significance for people living with HIV/AIDS, the gay male community, and the world.
At the recent APHA Annual Meeting & Exposition, Rautsola presented his company's vaccine at special session to discuss issues related to HIV. On Nov. 10, Rautsola announced that his company was on the verge of a vaccine that would not only improve the health and extend the lives of people infected with HIV, but also potentially lower the presence of the virus in bodily fluids so low that HIV transmission could be dramatically reduced.
For groups like the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), preventing HIV transmission is a primary concern. So it is no surprise that Rautsola's vaccine was of particular interest. His company, VIRxSYS is one of 15 biotechnology companies currently developing a therapeutic vaccine for HIV; that is, the vaccine should be given to people already infected with HIV.
"In matters of public health, there are always two issues," Rautsola noted, "the individual and the forward transmission. Various vaccines in development shown signs that they may reduce incidents of HIV developing into AIDS, and there are signs that some of these therapeutic vaccines suppress the virus enough that the individual would have such a low viral load that there is a very low chance of transmission."
'Therapeutic' v. 'Preventative' Cure
VIRxSYS is attempting to use genetic technologies to create a functional cure for AIDS. The company's work diverges from the more commonly funded projects of finding a preventative HIV vaccine. Rautsola believes that developing a therapeutic cure should be given priority over the creation of a preventative cure.
"A therapeutic vaccine could provide a functional cure," he said. "A functional cure enables the individual to control the replication of the virus in their body, while also preventing transmission. For many people in resource-deprived environments, a cure for AIDS would be something that would potentially eradicate the disease. However, a preventative vaccine does not help the 36 million individuals who already have the HIV infection.
"HIV/AIDS is one of the smartest viruses on our planet," he added. "Preventative vaccines have been in development for 20 years and nothing has worked so far. They have proven to be difficult and expensive to develop. Some scientists have proposed that there may not be a preventative vaccine for HIV/AIDS. In order for the preventative vaccine to work, you would need a large number of neutralizing antibodies.
"How," he asked, "do we get it to a sufficient number in the very specific points of entry for the HIV virus in a mucosal tissue? It seems to be insurmountable. It might take up to 30 or 40 more years. My view is that therapeutic vaccines could function as a potential starting point for developing a preventative vaccine as well."
Despite a positive reception from the public health community --not only doctors and scientists, but also educators, social workers, government workers and activists -- there are still many social, political, and scientific obstacles to overcome before a therapeutic vaccine can be available to the public. For example, there is a decreasing urgency surrounding the issue of HIV/AIDS due to improving treatment options antiretroviral drugs.
"I think a sense of urgency has somewhat disappeared from the issue of HIV/AIDS because HIV is generally not a terminal illness, at least in the developed world," Rautsola said. "Sometimes it seems that there is even a sense of casualness about it. People have become complacent about it. They think, 'If I get the infection, then OK, I have a drug to deal with it.' But there are consequences to the drug therapies, even though it is not lethal as it was in the 1980s."