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By Leocadia Bongben — 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 Centre, 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 that with the right resources: money and manpower, the search for HIV/AIDS vaccine can be accelerated.

The PHD holder in Immunology from the 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 on the ongoing search for a vaccine, the progress made so far 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 to 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 immunised or received the vaccine that protects him from getting 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. 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 infected but are not taking any treatment.

We have a vaccine that is already in clinical trial in New York, which 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 vaccine 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. Cameroon has a lot of different viruses and we cannot say we have discovered all because the ‘P’ was discovered one or two years ago.

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 pre-clinical 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 centre 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 him on this project and here we are just starting our initial phase.

So, are you trying it 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 recognise the vaccine.

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 or at the end of 90 minutes.

What is the challenge of getting the result or coming 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 edge 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.

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 centre 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. They should get out of the box and bring in new ideas.

First published in The Post print edition no 01397

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