Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital in Rome is experimenting with the first therapeutic vaccine for children infected with the HIV virus. The research project is being carried out by the Hospital of the Holy See, the leader of the EPIICAL project, in collaboration with the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and with financing from the U.S. National Institute of Health. This international joint venture allows for the vaccine to be tested on a wide range of patients in Italy, Thailand and in South Africa.
Finally, an alternative to antiretroviral therapy
The objective of the vaccine is to keep the virus under control and greatly reduce the need for antiretroviral therapy in pediatric cases, which has proved very effective, but toxic in the long-run. Children born with the HIV virus must begin therapy before the age of one and continue therapy their entire lives without interruption. This type of situation also requires psychological support to help patients understand the importance of adherence to therapy. It is often difficult for patients to rigorously carry out therapies and often these same therapies incur high costs for the National health system and, consequently, are often denied to poorer countries. The first trials on the vaccine were carried out in 2013 on twenty children born with the HIV virus, passed on from their mothers. Vertical transmission (mother-to-child) is the cause of 95% of new pediatric cases per year. The first phase of the vaccine trial was a success. The second phase will be carried out in 2019 on a sample of more than 100 HIV-infected children that were born with the disease and are currently being treated with standard therapies. The trial will first include children currently treated at the Bambino Gesù Hospital in Italy and then HIV-infected children in South Africa and Thailand, the two countries with the highest percentage of children born with the HIV virus as a result of an HIV-positive mother.
How the anti-HIV pediatric vaccine works
The therapeutic vaccine “teaches” the immune system of an HIV-infected patient to recognize the disease and stimulates it to react against it. The difference between therapeutic vaccines and prophylactic vaccines is that the first are used to cure people already infected by the disease while the second are used to prevent the disease. More specifically with the therapeutic pediatric vaccine, the child is given the DNA of a specific protein found in the HIV virus. This genetic information is injected into the cells of the patient in order to stimulate an immune response. DNA synthesis takes place in the cell that receives the HIV DNA, thus improving the immune response against the disease. The administration of the vaccine alongside traditional antiretroviral therapy has increased the immune response of patients, allowing for greater control of the HIV virus.
Never let down your guard when it comes to HIV
The number of HIV cases in children has been significantly reduced in industrialized countries, such as Italy, and mother-to-child transmission of the disease is now becoming more and more rare. Adolescents however are still particularly at risk for infection. According to the most recent data issued by UNAIDS, there are approximately 180,000 new HIV pediatric cases per year for a total of nearly 1.8 million HIV-infected children. Educating and informing people is the key to reducing the emergence of new cases in the future.
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