Working for seven years with the Noble Prize Winner Ralph Marvin Steinman, Dr. Godwin Nchinda who is heading the Immunology laboratory at the Chantal Biya International Reference Center, CIRCB, has been working on a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. A Graduate of the University of Calabar in microbiology and Medical virology from the University of Nigeria Nsuka, Nchinda thinks with the right resources: money and manpower the search for HIV/AIDS vaccine can be accelerated. The PHD holder Immunology University Leipzig and a post doctorate degree from the University of Bochum, says research is at the pre-clinical stage despite the challenge of the ever changing virus. He spoke to The Post’s Leocadia Bongben of the ongoing search for a vaccine, progress made and challenges faced.
At what stage is research for a vaccine against HIV/AIDS at the Chantal Biya International Reference Centre, is the search for child or for adult vaccine?
We are looking for a vaccine for therapeutic and prophylactic vaccination, it could potentially be used for children but generally we are going start by developing an adult vaccine. If it works in adults we can then move to children.
Therapeutic, prophylactic, vaccine what does this mean?
Therapeutic means a vaccine that would be used in people who are already infected, that will improve their immune system and enable them to live with the virus, and if they protect themselves they can somehow fight the virus. Prophylactic vaccine prevents infection; that the person is exposed to the virus but, he doesn’t get infected, because he was immunized or received the vaccine that protects him from getting protected from the virus.
At what stage is the search for HIV/AIDS vaccine?
If you consider basic research and clinical use of the vaccine, being connected by a bridge, that is to say we are at the middle of the bridge. If the study works well, we go for clinical trials or we can go back to the basic research to continue improving the efficacy of our vaccine.
When you at the middle of the research, concretely what are you doing?
We are doing what is called pre-clinical studies; this is simply using samples from patients who are infected with the virus to check in their immune system to see whether they have some degree of protection from the virus, those who are treatment naïve- those infected but are not taking any treatment. We have a vaccine that is already in clinical trial in New York that we developed in collaboration with Ralph Marvin Steinman at the Rockefeller University. What we are doing is some sort of pre-evaluation of this vaccine. The virus was developed with a type B virus.
This is the type of HIV/AIDS that is prevalent in Europe and North America, this is quite different from the type of HIV virus we have here in Cameroon and in the Sub-Saharan Africa. We want to see whether a vaccine developed with the type of virus in the US, can work with the immune cells of patients who are infected with an unrelated strand of the virus.
How many strands do we have in Cameroon?
All over the world, Cameroon has the highest diversity of the virus. These are the group O, N and P that were discovered in Cameroon. There are other groups of the virus that are circulating; and combine recombinant forms that are unique to Cameroon. Cameroon has a lot of different viruses which we cannot say we have discovered all because the ‘P’ was discovered one or two years ago.
How are the strands different from each other?
They are different from each other by region. Viruses have ability to mix, exchange their parts, so we can have a virus from group ‘A mixing with B to form the combined recombinant forms called AB. The other thing is evolution with the viruses taking different directions.
Why the prominence in Cameroon?
Cameroon is the cradle of Africa not only in terms culture, population, but maybe also in microbial species existing in the country.
Now that you are at the stage of preclinical trials, do you have a name for the vaccine?
Yes we developed a vaccine called dendritic cells targeted vaccines. These try to use a special cell in the body called dendritic cell that is like the control center of the immune system. It was Steinman the 2011 Nobel Prize Winner who discovered the dendritic cell. For the past seven years I have been working with on this project and here we are just starting our initial phase.
So what are you doing here, trying on people?
No we don’t start with people, with some funding from the European Union we are doing the pre-clinical study, we get samples from treatment naïve people to work in the laboratory to see if their cells can recognize the vaccine.
There is a compound that activates -key cells in the body, have you heard of this?
There are many compounds that can activate immune cells. The immune system in order to respond to a pathogen must see the pathogen as dangerous, in addition to taking parts of the pathogen. So every infection has a danger signal and that is what the immune system sees and it gets activated. Maybe if could give me a name, I could tell you the class.
There are many compounds that can activate microphages, but they are just one of the cells that HIV/AIDS infects. But, the most vital cell HIV infects is the CD4 cells-the cells used to monitor the progression of the disease. So, microphage as a stand-alone solution for HIV/AIDS, I doubt it.
Can stem cells be used in the cure of HIV/AIDS?
Though it is not in my field, however as science evolves it may be used. We can engineer stems cells to improve the immune system, but this is not what is happening in the HIV field.
At the present stage of research, how long could it take to come up with HIV/AIDS vaccine?
It can happen tomorrow or in the next twenty years. Vaccine science like any other thing is like a football game, you can score at the first minute of at the end of 90 minutes.
What is the challenge of getting the result or come up with a vaccine?
The greatest challenge is money, if we had the right resources, in terms of money and manpower, the kind of minds that can come together and do cutting age science, this would have accelerated the discovery of a vaccine. Of course, one of the greatest challenges in discovering an HIV/AIDA Vaccine is that the vaccine is constantly changing itself. What you see in a person today would not be what you see tomorrow. Each time the virus replicates it is another virus coming in an enzyme called reverse transriptase which is very unfaithful, that keeps on producing quasi species of the virus. When the immune system sees a virus it starts preparing itself, but the others that come are not the same like the one the system saw before so the immune system is permanently stressed unlike other diseases.
Does Cameroon not have the manpower, researchers to put heads together?
Cameroon has the manpower but they are dispersed, many people are going out because they don’t have the necessary resources in terms of infrastructure and the money to sit here to do the work. They do not go to the same places; some are even going to Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. In the whole country we are the only ones trying to develop an HIV/AIDS vaccine.
How helpful is the CIRCB in HIV/AIDS Vaccine Development?
This center is so helpful in that it is trying to do the impossible in Cameroon. With right frame of mind and determination you can start something here on which Cameroonians can build on in their research. Training a new generation of scientists who can ask the questions here in Cameroon and attempt to answer them with what we have.
What is your advice to other researchers?
Research is a passion and a profession and one has to put in the best to get the best. They should not limit themselves when doing research, get out of the box bring in new ideas, challenge and go an extra mile and this is when one can discover things and attract funding to do go research.
You last word.
Scientist can succeed here in Cameroon, they should not give up.
Cough may soon have a better treatment by the time Polatoux comes out of the laboratory.
‘Polatoux’ is a cough syrup that has been presented by the Institute of Medical Research and Study of Medicinal Plants; known by its French acronym, IMPM, as one of the drugs that cures cough for all ages of people.
In the villages, it was observed that when a person had cough, he was told to harvest the Eucalyptus leaves, boil and drink.
It is from this practice that the IMPM laboratory started its research to come up with an ameliorated drug that would be available to a larger population.
IMPM screened the Eucalyptus leaves for toxicity and activity- to ensure that they are not toxic and presence of the active agent.
Afterwards, the leaves were boiled in the laboratory and the vapour collected. The vapour consisting of water and oils were again separated to get the oils, the active agent that cures cough.
Sugar and water was mixed in pots to form the syrup and the active agent added on to it, say Joseph Kinga, IMPM Laboratory Technician.
Unlike the drugs in the market that are said to calm the cough and not kill the bacteria, Polatoux actually kills bacteria, and it is only through contact with an infected person that one can get re-infected again.
This cough syrup that is presently in a semi- finished form has been sent to the IMPM Botanical Laboratory at Nkomo for further testing on animals and humans beings.
This is to ensure that the syrup respects all the norms before it is made available for consumption.