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Could mRNA technology used in COVID vaccine help with HIV crisis?

The Minnesota Department of Health reports there are HIV outbreaks in three major counties.

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota is in the midst of an outbreak and we're not talking about COVID-19.

Rather, the Minnesota Department of Health is reporting a cluster of HIV diagnoses. Some of them were discovered as early as last year and most of them are in Ramsey, Hennepin and St. Louis Counties. 

Thousands of people across the state are already living with the virus that has no cure. 

But this is where COVID could come into play because the historic mRNA vaccine developed during the pandemic could be the same technology that finally solves the HIV crisis.

Abbot Northwestern Hospital's Dr. Frank Rhame has spent a lifetime treating people with HIV, including the state's first positive patient, Bruce Brockway.

"He was admitted for an anemia that no one could explain and this was the end of 1979 and they asked me 'could this be this new illness,'" explained Dr. Rhame, who went on to treat Brockway for three years before he died. 

Dr. Rhame also traveled the world to bring medicine and knowledge to places like Egypt, South Africa and Ukraine, where he last visited 25 years ago. He says Ukraine still treats 3,000 people for HIV every day.

"This has been the biggest problem we have in HIV, we've not been able to make a good vaccine for it," said Dr. Rhame.

Fast forward to 2020 when scientists used the well-known mRNA technology to develop a new vaccine to treat COVID-19. It works well because it helps your immune system recognize and remember to build a better response against an infection - a process researchers think can achieve a similar result against HIV.

The National Institute of Health is, in fact, enrolling people in a new trial in cities across the country. It's a process, that while long, is giving a boost to the idea of developing an HIV vaccine.

"I've been disappointed so many times," said Dr. Rhame about a vaccine. "I can say I'm very hopeful. I can't say we're very close."

Dr. Rhame also led two trials over the years in prevention and treatment, both of which failed.

But if an mRNA vaccine works again, like it did for COVID, the doctor calls it a revolution - not just for the people fighting HIV for so long, but for other diseases too.

"Right now the influenza virus is unsolved, malaria is unsolved, in terms of vaccines, so there are lots of infections left that this kind of technology could and is being applied to that could make a lot of difference," said Dr. Rhame.

One reason a vaccine is so hard to create is because HIV has hundreds of thousands of variants, unlike the virus that causes COVID, which so far, has only a handful. 

But to be effective, a vaccine has to protect against most, if not all, of the variants.

We may have a better idea of how well things are going when the first phase of the new NIH trial wraps up in July of 2023.

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