El profesor Robin Shattock, del Imperial College of London, dirige desde noviembre del año pasado EAVI2020, un consorcio europeo integrado por 23 equipos que tiene como objetivo el desarrollo de vacunas preventivas y terapéuticas contra el VIH. Pese al corto espacio de tiempo transcurrido desde su creación, asegura que el proyecto ha dado pasos decisivos para iniciar a finales de 2017 los ensayos clínicos de sus primeros prototipos.

A year ago, the EAVI2020 consortium was announced. How has the initiative evolved so far?

We have brought together 23 partners across Europe, all with very different but complementary skill sets and have actively engaged in working together on this project. We are already seeing significant benefits in this synergistic approach. Our challenge is to try and generate 10 new vaccine candidates and put them into the clinic within five years. That’s ambitious. We are currently on track to have the first of these candidates in a clinical trial by the end of next year. To go from a standing start and be in clinical trials within two months is pretty impressive and could only be realized by our cooperative approach.

On the occasion of the presentation of this initiative it highlighted how the scientific progress achieved in recent years, which has provided unprecedented knowledge on the nature of protective antibodies or antiviral cellular response, would be essential to achieve an effective vaccine. What are the main challenges to face for the EAVI2020 project to be successful?

The challenges are plentiful, but also an important driver of our research. There are two clear challenges that we, and the wider field need to address. The first is to discover how to induce protective antibodies that can prevent infection. The field has been hugely energized by the discovery that these can be generated in a limited number of infected subjects – we need to turn this insight into generating vaccine that can induce the same response in the majority of people at risk of HIV infection. The second challenge is equal in its complexity and this is discovering approaches to induce antiviral cellular responses that can control and even eliminate infected cells, including those harboring latent infection.

Your speech at the GeSIDA Congress is based on neutralizing antibodies in HIV prevention and treatment. The AIDS Immunopathogenesis Unit of the Health Institute Carlos III, led by Dr. Alcami, participates in this consortium making the screening of neutralizing antibodies obtained through different immunogens in animal models and clinical trials. Can you advance some data of the work of this Spanish group?

The AIDS Immunopathogenesis Unit has established a central platform for the screening of neutralizing antibodies obtained through different immunogens (vaccine candidates) in animal models and clinical trials. This will start analyzing samples early 2017 and it is hope that this will contribute to the range of antibodies that could be used for prevention and therapy. In addition, this group has developed an original approach aiming at the design of new immunogens based on viruses isolated in acute infection from individuals that have rapidly generated neutralizing antibodies. This opens the possibility of eliciting new antibodies by vaccination with envelopes from opens up the possibility of designing new immunogens based on these isolates that might rapidly promote the induction of neutralizing antibodies in those at risk of infection.

The IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute and August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS) take part in the project, too. What role do they play and what progress has they made in their participation in the consortium?

These groups are actively working on antiviral cellular responses designed to eliminate infected cells. They are designing immunogens based on conserved epitopes that have shown beneficial control in HIV-infected individuals. Our expectation is that they will do the same in health volunteers and infected subjects that have not mounted similar responses. These have been put into a range of nucleic acid and viral vectors to move into clinical trials, and earlier versions have already shown a greater breadth of T-cell recognition, which looks quite promising. An additional novel aspect of this research is to encode the same immunogens in BCG (the vaccine to prevent tuberculosis). The idea here is that it could be given to babies to reduce the transmission of HIV infection from infected mothers, but this is a longer-term goal of the program.

Last year, when the consortium was created, it was estimated that in five years the first clinical trials would be carried out. Does the EAVI2020 activity advance as it was expected? When do you think the first vaccine prototypes will be available?

We’ve got really a very well mapped-out plan, and because of the ambitious scope our project and our planning is really very tight. We’re monitoring on a weekly basis where we are in the program and constantly reviewing the timelines to make sure that everything is in place. We’re having to make decisions now about things that will be tested in humans in one to three years’ time. Currently everything is on track to see the first prototypes in the clinic by the end of next year, but we can’t afford any slack in the system.