Continuing our series of exclusive Congress interviews we are delighted to share a conversation with Dr Gaurav Gaiha at the Congress this month. Dr Gaiha participated in the HIV workshop on the pre-Congress day, presenting “highly networked” CD8+ T cell vaccines for HIV. In our chat we found out more about the challenges associated with developing vaccines for HIV, and how Dr Gaiha and his team are tackling them. We are grateful for his time, and hope that you enjoy the interview!
Introducing Dr Gaiha
As Dr Gaiha tells us, he runs a research laboratory that is focused on infectious diseases and translating protective T cell response findings into vaccines. Additionally, he sees patients at the general hospital.
“So really trying to both work on research advancements but also kind of serve people in a very direct patient-doctor relationship.”
More on “highly networked” approaches
As we know, Dr Gaiha was at the Congress to present on “highly networked” CD8+ T cell vaccines. We therefore asked him to give us a little insight into this approach. He explains that this is an approach that acknowledges the “immense diversity” of HIV and its “incredible” capacity to mutate in response to immune pressure. It uses insights from computational biology and network theory to identify the “critical parts” of the HIV cells that can’t mutate: vulnerable regions.
“If you imagine a network, like a social network, there’s going to be certain ‘key players’ in that social network, where if you were to remove them it would really be damaging to how that social network stays connected.”
This social network analogy is really helpful in the digital age! So, at the level of the HIV proteins, Dr Gaiha and his team are trying to direct T cells towards those “key players”. If the virus tries to mutate it will have a “consequential effect” on the virus’ capacity to replicate.
“Hit the virus where it hurts.”
Challenges for HIV vaccines
When we spoke to Dr Feinberg a few months ago, he described HIV as one of the most “vexing” challenges that vaccine developers are tackling. We asked Dr Gaiha what challenges he identifies, and how he and his team are approaching them. He identifies “several” challenges, two of which he has already mentioned: diversity and adaptability.
From a T cell perspective, there’s a human challenge – “we as humans are diverse”. Therefore, trying to get a “one size fits all” vaccine is a difficult pursuit. Furthermore, there’s the issue of durability. If the immune response dips, the virus can sometimes “break through”.
What Dr Gaiha’s team is trying to do is “hit at the diversity” and “hit at that ability for the virus to mutate”.
“We’ve made strides.”
Now, they are looking to make the immune responses durable and ensure that they “get to the right sites of the body”.
What about access?
As we know, current HIV therapeutics are a lifelong and often burdensome addition to patients’ lives. Could a vaccine overcome some of these issues? Dr Gaiha recognises that enabling access and subsequently encouraging continued uptake of drugs is a challenge. A preventative vaccine would be “fantastic”, obviously, but in the meantime, a therapeutic vaccine that could “suppress the virus” would be a “huge development”.
“HIV is one of those viruses where vaccine development is very much in line with addressing this issue of access.”
What did we take from COVID-19?
Many of our speakers have been working in their fields since before COVID-19, including Dr Gaiha. We asked him if, in his opinion, there are any lessons that we can transfer from our experience of dealing with the pandemic.
“The biggest has been our experience with the RNA vaccines.”
Dr Gaiha believes that we can translate some of our RNA vaccine lessons from COVID-19 into effective and immunogenic HIV vaccines. Furthermore, “because they can be generated so rapidly”, more “iterative developments” can be facilitated in HIV.
“It’s been such a struggle to find the right pieces.”
Another lesson Dr Gaiha hopes to take forward is the “urgency that made it happen”.
“I think we really should be trying to apply that same urgency to the HIV problem.”
Although every “small, incremental” step forward is a worthy achievement, Dr Gaiha is hoping to take the “same mindset and approach” that will spur vaccine development to the “next level”.
We asked Dr Gaiha what brings him to the Congress, and he kindly gave us an insight into what he was looking forward to over the few days he was with us. He was enthusiastic about the opportunity to be in-person once again, despite the obvious comfort of remote connections!
“The informal exchange is just such a wonderful thing.”
Another benefit is the range of “different perspectives” and Dr Gaiha was looking forward to engaging with these different perspectives and possibly forging some new collaborations.
We are so grateful to Dr Gaiha for his work and hope that you enjoyed his insights as much as we did! For more information on what went on at the Congress, click here to download the post-Congress report. Finally, make sure you subscribe to stay in the loop for future interviews!