Can new HIV drug made in Hong Kong prevent and combat the virus that causes Aids?
A team led by scientists from the University of Hong Kong is confident their scientific discovery, which has only been tested on mice so far, can protect people from contracting HIV and also treat the virus
A team led by scientists from the University of Hong Kong has developed a new antibody drug that will not only protect people from contracting HIV but also serve as a long-acting treatment for the virus, unlike current medication that must be taken daily.
But there will need to be a further battery of tests before the drug, named “BiIA-SG”, can be part of the global battle against the virus, which causes Aids.
The research team has so far only tested the drug on mice but is now looking to experiment on larger animals such as monkeys, before conducting clinical trials on humans.
Still, Professor Chen Zhiwei, the team leader and director of HKU’s Aids Institute, stressed the scientific discovery had yielded “one of the most potent and effective antibody drugs”.
This is because the study showed that mice given the drug before being infected with HIV were protected from the virus for about a week.
In addition, the experiments, which also involved experts from mainland medical and research institutions, found that when mice were infected with HIV before being treated, 42 per cent had an “undetectable level” of the virus for at least four weeks after one injection of antibodies.
Chen explained that the drug could “kill two birds with one stone” as it could firstly, kill the virus and secondly, if it was already flourishing, prevent it from entering more cells.
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Existing therapy for those with the virus involves taking medication daily, otherwise the “level of the virus would rebound”, Chen said.
There is also Truvada, a pill that can prevent infection. It is a pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, that if taken daily, can lower the chances of getting HIV from sex by over 90 per cent and from injecting drugs by over 70 per cent, according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Hong Kong, the drug is offered through private clinics at a price of about HK$8,000 to HK$10,000 for one month’s supply, according to Aids Concern, an NGO.
Other vaccines and long-acting antiviral drugs are at different stages of testing.
Findings from the HKU study were recently published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Clinical Investigation.
The research team’s goal, Chen said, was to lengthen the period of protection offered by its new antibody drug.
“We are doing further modifications ... to make sure the drug concentration can be maintained for much longer time. We are targeting [for this to be] weeks or even months,” said Chen, who is also a professor of microbiology at HKU.
Chen added that as long as the drug concentration was “maintained at the effective level”, the team expected it to provide 100 per cent prevention against an infection.
The tests found that the drug was effective against 124 strains of HIV, including those that are commonly found in infected people from Hong Kong and mainland China.
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According to government figures, 9,091 people in Hong Kong were diagnosed with HIV between 1984 – when the first case was reported – and last year. About 681 new cases were reported to the Centre for Health Protection last year. The cost of antiretroviral drugs for those in the city infected with the virus comes up to over HK$550 million a year, according to a press release issued by HKU on Thursday.
One major challenge in developing a vaccine to combat HIV – which has infected more than 70 million people and killed about 35 million globally – is how quickly the virus mutates and changes its appearance to evade antibodies that a person’s immune system produces to fight it off.