June 18, 2014

Toward a Human Vaccines Project

Breaking New Ground in a Collective Search for Vaccines against Major Killer Diseases

NEW YORK – New technologies and insights in antigen discovery, genomics and immunological monitoring offer tremendous potential that could be collectively leveraged to speed development of vaccines against major diseases, according to leading scientists who met across specializations to explore creation of a Human Vaccines Project and reported their conclusions in today’s issue of Nature Immunology.

Vaccines are one of the greatest success stories in the history of public health but remain elusive for persistent global diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which together kill more than 3.5 million people a year and infect millions more, despite impressive advances in treatment and prevention. Previously successful vaccine development strategies don’t work against a number of today’s complex parasites, bacteria, viruses and cancers.

“A Human Vaccines Project focused on solving the major scientific problems impeding vaccine development could be transformative for efforts to help prevent these devastating infectious diseases as well as certain cancers,” said Wayne C. Koff, Chief Scientific Officer of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and lead author of the report.

The 35 experts from industry, academia, government and nongovernmental organizations met Feb. 5-6 in La Jolla, California, and “concluded that the concept for a Human Vaccines Project was meritorious, timely and potentially transformative,” the report stated. The group identified three major common challenges in vaccine research and development: an insufficient understanding of how to generate specific, potent, broad and durable immune responses in humans; an insufficient understanding of precise antigens required to produce desired protective immunity, and a need for a deeper appreciation of how best to optimize vaccine efficacy in newborns, the elderly and populations in the developing world.

They recommended that the Human Vaccines Project focus on mapping the human immune system into a “human immunome” to facilitate vaccine discovery, and on a comprehensive series of systematic human immunology-based clinical research studies with experimental vaccines aimed at solving the identified scientific challenges and overcoming the limited predictive powers of animal models.

“Creating an enabling environment for and implementing such trials, and ensuring close engagement with the vaccine industry and public sector research agencies, would be keys to the project’s success,” said report co-author Ian D. Gust, Professorial Fellow, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Melbourne, who chaired the meeting.

The February meeting was the first of three workshops to catalyze the Human Vaccines Project, with an initial focus on identifying key objectives to inform the project’s scientific plan. The second workshop, to be held in New York City in July, will focus on organizational, management and financial questions to inform a business plan. The third workshop, projected for late 2014 or early 2015, will bring together key stakeholders and potential donors to review the scientific and business plans and prepare for a projected launch in 2015. The three initial workshops are funded by a grant to IAVI from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“There was a very strong consensus that we now have the tools to radically change the paradigm for vaccine development and usher in a new era in disease prevention,” said workshop participant M.K. Bhan, former Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India. “We are at a pivotal point in the history of biological and vaccine sciences, with an unprecedented opportunity to prevent some of humanity’s worst diseases. A Human Vaccines Project has the potential to make that vision a reality,” said report co-author Stanley Plotkin, Emeritus Professor of the University of Pennsylvania and Chairman of the Human Vaccines Project Steering Committee.

IAVI’s work is made possible by generous support from many donors including: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark; Irish Aid; the Ministry of Finance of Japan; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands; the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD); the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The full list of IAVI donors is available here.