HIV Vaccine Approved and HPV Cure Up Next

By Fallon Davis

Immunizations in the United States is a big deal to citizens. From birth, Americans are required to receive several vaccinations from chickenpox to vitamin D. National Immunization Awareness month is a great time to talk about new vaccines and what precautions should take place when receiving vaccinations- and when you need them for international or domestic travel.

In all the digital web tabs of research, I managed to spot a doctor’s HIV vaccine approved for human trials by the NIH. Wistar Institute vaccine expert Dr. Hildegund Ertl has researched a vaccination for HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) and recently was funded by the NIH for a human trial using a chimpanzee virus that can possibly cure HIV.

In 2007, Dr. Ertl helped write the next chapter in Wistar’s long history of vaccine research and development with the creation of The Wistar Institute Vaccine Center, which she serves as a professor in Vaccine Research. Dr. Ertl started teaching at Wistar in 1996 and holds professorships at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

What projects are you currently focusing your research on at Wistar?

We are still working on rabies.

Right now, we are trying to develop, in coordination with a former CDC employee, a diagnostic test. Basically, for animals, if someone gets attacked, we can rapidly decide if the animal was rabid or not. Therefore, we don’t have to send the brain to a state lab and wait for a week and ask people to get vaccinated before they even know if they need to.

We are still working on gene therapy — basically, as you know, gene therapy is there to fix faulty genes by replacing them. The problem is, it can turn your immune response to be so, we are looking at how to circumvent that immune response and we are still working on cancer vaccines, trying to figure out why they don’t work and we are still working on HIV vaccines trying to get them into the clinic.

Many Health Organizations say dogs are the source for a majority of rabies transmissions. Do you feel this is accurate? What animals do you feel are more responsible? Besides vaccinations, what other ways can we help our dogs prevent getting rabies?

It depends entirely where you are (living). If you are in the US, the only time we’ve seen death due to rabies, and we see maybe one or two a year, is when they are exposed to rabid bats. So we do have skunks and even more commonly, raccoon rabies in America. If you get attacked by a raccoon, you’ll probably go to the doctor. A bat bite, at night, you might not even notice. If you are in Asia, transmission is 95% by rapid dogs.

In Europe and the Americas, we have laws that we have to vaccinate our dogs for rabies. You don’t have that in Asia and Africa. Not only that, but most of these dogs are owner less. So they are either community owned, which means, you know, people in the neighborhood just feed them but no one really takes responsibility for them, or they are not owned by anyone.

So they are not sterilized, they breed like mad, and they are highly susceptible to the virus — mainly from one dog to the other or mainly through bites.

In the US, if you go hiking and you got bitten by a bat, I would worry about rabies. If you are in your backyard, you are in daytime, and all of a sudden a raccoon comes and bites you, I would get vaccinated for the raccoon might have rabies.

Yes, you have to worry about rabies in the United States. We have it in animals; it’s just people here are educated enough to seek vaccination if they get exposed and that’s why we have very few deaths.

Rabies is in the brain and it actually makes you more aggressive. So that dog is even more likely than an average dog to bite. The rabies is in the brain but it also gets created in the salivary glands — so it’s in the saliva. If the dog bites, saliva will get into the wound and the saliva has the rabies virus.

So, rabies will now infect nerve endings that are in the wound site and slowly, but surely, migrate upwards toward the central nervous system and the brain which can replicate. If you ever go to Asia, I would be careful to get close to dogs. Physically touching an animal is not going to give you rabies. So the saliva has to get either onto a mucous surface, like or eyes or the inner part of your mouth, or you get it through a bite.

What types of cancer research is your laboratory developing vaccines for?

Basically, we did develop a vaccine for treatment of cervical cancer. For now, we have a prophylactic vaccine and the rest is actually very basic. It’s more of a fundamental question that is applicable to many types of cancers.

Based on your website summary, your therapeutic vaccine works if you give repeated doses of E7 fused with herpes simplex virus? With testing done on mice, Can you explain in detail why this vaccine could work for HPV in Humans?

Obviously, before you do a clinical trial, you have to do an animal model. The animals we use are mice. They are not as expensive as monkeys. They’re genetically better defined. We have reasonably good cancer models in them. If it works well in mice, we go to the next model, which happens to be humans and we do a Phase I trial.

Phase I trials are rather expensive, for the production of a vaccine already costs more than $1 million. So that’s why academia has a hard time doing it and normally what we try to find industrial support.

Were you successful in the testing in mice?

Yes, it works really nice in mice. We can basically give the mice a cancer and give it the vaccine and the cancer goes away.

We have two different models. We have one where we inject tumor cells. We give one dose and the tumor goes away. We have a transgenic model that’s a little bit artificial for the cancer, especially in the thyroid. And […] that the thyroid becomes affected. Basically, the entire thyroid will turn into a cancer. So if you give these mice the vaccine, we can stop progression but we can’t cure it (cancer) for we can’t cure the thyroid. It’s a somewhat artificial model but people are using it.

How do you receive funding for your research with our trillion dollar deficit?

The government is slow — it takes about a year. You have an idea, you think this will really work, your preliminary data shows that it will work, you write a proposal to the NIH, and it takes about a year to know if it actually gets funding or not. And if you don’t get funding, you have to start from the beginning. So you waste a lot of time.

Industry-sponsored research is another source. A lot of people, including myself, work with industries or small companies. It’s sometimes faster just to work with industries. More and more people are trying to get funded research from industries. Obviously, the idea is if you have something that looks interesting, industries are going to sponsor it and then it will get the intellectual rights to it.

Can you tell me more about your progress on using a chimpanzee virus as a vaccine carrier to combat HIV?

Basically, money is available to do a Phase I trial. This one is actually headed by the National Institute of Health. The vaccine is manufactured. Now it has to undergo all types of testing and then it’s going to go into people. From there, I can tell you if it’s (trials) looking promising or not.

Then, obviously, we apply for more money, which I don’t have yet, to see if we can improve on the vaccine.

What projects would Wistar like to get work on in the future?

I am definitely committed to the HIV project, for the millions of people getting infected each year. The other thing I’m fairly committed to, is the cancer project, seeing if I cannot transition these very basic findings in mice towards a better treatment in humans.

I'm Fallon Davis, the Managing Editor of The #MakeHealthPrimary Journal. I love talking to people and learning about what passions they have. I have a B.A. in Mass Communications with a focus in broadcast production and over a decade of experience interviewing professionals and writing for publications.