Researchers studying COVID-19 vaccine technology for potential HIV, cancer vaccines

BOSTON — Researchers are studying COVID-19 vaccine technology as a potential opportunity to develop vaccines for chronic and terminal illnesses like HIV and cancer. Some scientists believe mRNA technology is offering a promising development in decades’ worth of efforts.

Preliminary data from an early-stage clinical trial out of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and The Scripps Research Institute in California suggests that a new HIV vaccine may hold promise. Researchers are now collaborating with Moderna to see if mRNA technology could be a game-changer in HIV prevention.

A clinical trial also being conducted right now by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston is looking into whether mRNA could be used to prevent cancer recurrence.

“Getting something to the point where it really shows efficacy, in the past, we’d say that takes many, many years,” said Dr. Kenneth Mayer, the medical research director at Fenway Health in Boston. “The speed of the development of the COVID-19 vaccines has been nothing short of remarkable. It’s very promising and very exciting.”

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Doctors at Fenway Health in Boston initially began seeing some of the first patients with HIV in New England in June of 1980 and started working on HIV vaccines by the mid-90s.

Decades later, Dr. Mayer said it’s frustrating that there still isn’t a safe and effective vaccine against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS if left untreated.

“Having a vaccine against HIV would be dramatic,” Mayer said. “It’s still a major public health challenge and having a vaccine could spare future generations.”

Similar to the way the COVID-19 vaccine attaches to spiky coronavirus proteins and kills them, researchers believe the HIV vaccine could potentially do the same with HIV particles.

Although vaccine studies for both HIV and cancer are in the very early stages, experts are hopeful that mRNA technology may one day succeed where others have failed.

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