Inovio Pharmaceuticals in Plymouth Meeting is collaborating with the University of California San Francisco, which received a $6.95 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, to test the biotech company's DNA-based vaccine to reduce or prevent the HIV virus.

Inovio's immunotherapy, Pennvax GP, will be tested in HIV-positive patients to see if it generates killer T cells in the body's immune system to attack the HIV virus.

Current antiviral drugs work well against HIV, "but people have to take these drugs every day for decades," said Steven Deeks, the grant's principal investigator and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. For many people around the world the drugs "are just not feasible" due to side effects or costs, he said. "We're trying to find a way to enable the immune system to do what antiretroviral drugs do, which is to prevent the virus from replicating and spreading in the person."

Nearly 36 million people have died from HIV related causes and 35 million are living with HIV, a retrovirus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

"Inovio has developed an approach which has worked quite well in other settings, for example HPV infection in women who might be developing cervical cancer," Deeks said. "We want to take their approach, which we think is very exciting, to see if we can generate these powerful CD cells that can recognize and kill HIV.  In theory if we are lucky, it will allow us to one day stop antiretroviral drugs and let the immune system to take over."

CD8 is a receptor on the surface of T cells that allows the cell to recognize something foreign, Deeks said.

The vaccine is a strand of DNA that contains the genetic information of the virus. Once in the body - through an inoculation in the arm - the DNA gets into critical immune cells that attack HIV. Inovio's immunotherapy has been tested for HPV and for the Zika virus. "It's the same general approach, but the DNA is quite different," Deeks said.

Inovio's vaccine will be tested alone and in combination with other products in patient trials at the University of California in San Francisco and Los Angeles. "Similar to what we are doing in the cancer field," said Inovio CEO Joseph Kim, "we believe that the one-two punch of generating potent killer T cells with our immunotherapies" could be an important step in finding a cure for these diseases.