Johnson & Johnson announced its plans to test its experimental HIV vaccine in the U.S., Europe and South America. Vaccine clinical trials are already taking place in Africa with the results by 2021. If it’s considered a success, the research could lead to a vaccine in the next 10 years.
About 40 years ago, AIDS was a death sentence, being the leading cause of death among 25-to-44-year-olds. However, in the last four decades, researchers have made huge strides against AIDS and HIV. If someone were diagnosed with the disease today, they could live just as long of a life as someone who does not have the disease.
Does that mean HIV is no longer a crisis? Absolutely not! It’s still a huge crisis with over one million Americans diagnosed with the virus and another 38 million throughout the world with it. In Africa’s sub-Saharan region, there is one in every 25 people who have the disease.
In all HIV treatment breakthroughs, animal research has played a huge part, and that’s because the SIV disease (simian immunodeficiency virus) is similar to HIV in humans. SIV affects macaques and chimpanzees. For that reason, non-human primates were used to test the safety and effectiveness of earlier HIV drugs such as AZT – the first FDA-approved drug for the treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Animals also helped with the creation of saquinavir. After proven demonstration in animals, the FDA approved it for clinical trials and became the first protease inhibitor. This drug helped to decrease the number of deaths associated with AIDS as well as hospitalizations by up to 80 percent in countries that could get ahold of it.
Animal research has also assisted in searching for an HIV vaccine, with studies shows macaques could become immune to SIV with such type of vaccine.
Researchers were able to eradicate HIV in mouse genes through antiretroviral therapy and CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. This was a first for any animal, and hope that the virus could be eradicated in humans.
Although significant advances have been seen, animal rights activists are protesting the use of animals in drug research. They claim that powerful computers can offer the same kind of research being tested on animals. And, these activists have found several lawmakers who have introduced bills that limit the use of animals that includes not using cats or dogs.
The case is weak, though. For example, animal research is carried out ethically and meticulously. Regulations that govern this research in the U.S. extend much more than research on humans. In fact, researchers need to offer animal subjects high-quality food, medical care and shelter. This also includes providing anesthesia for procedures deemed painful.
And, these supercomputers they are talking about don’t even come close to the complexity of biology. They can be used by researchers to understand and replicate, but HIV interacts with its host in so many ways that artificial intelligence may never consider.
By arguing against the use of animals in HIV research, it could end up leading to a rise in the number of HIV/AIDS cases. That, researchers say, is an inhumane aspect.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD
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