Developing an Intranasal HIV-1 mRNA Vaccine Using Short Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs) as a Delivery System; Investigating Inequitable Distribution of a Future HIV-1 Vaccine

Burns, Lily, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
JACQUES, RICHARD, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Xu, Yang, Luna Labs

My technical research and STS research are not directly related; however, they both cover topics related to vaccine development and distribution. My technical research focuses on the development of an mRNA HIV-1 vaccine using carbon nanotubes (CNTs) as a delivery vehicle, while my STS research discusses topics further downstream by questioning how equitable vaccine distribution can be achieved given the complexity of the issue. The topic of HIV-1 vaccine development cannot be discussed without discussing how it will be manufactured, distributed, and uptaken by the public. Both vaccine development and vaccine uptake must work together to provide a vaccine that is effective for the public.

The technical portion of my thesis developed an optimal intranasal vaccine formulation for HIV-1 using carbon nanotubes conjugated to mRNA and positive polymers. HIV-1 attacks the body’s immune system by destroying immune cells, rendering the body incapable of fighting off infections and diseases. Currently, there are no licensed HIV-1 vaccine candidates on the market because conventional vaccine methods are ineffective in preventing the virus. These previous methods result in retention of viral properties and narrow immune responses. My Capstone group, in conjunction with Luna Labs, has worked to develop an HIV-1 vaccine using CNTs that help to stabilize the mRNA and function as a non toxic delivery system. This formulation can be used further downstream for animal studies and will hopefully become an effective vaccine candidate that can be passed by the FDA for the public.

The ethical portion of my thesis focuses on the complexity of vaccine distribution and the unique case that arises when planning for the release of a future HIV-1 vaccine. People with HIV-1 have reported experiences of discrimination and maltreatment within healthcare systems. On top of that, people who are at a higher risk of contracting HIV-1, including low income and Black communities, face similar experiences in healthcare. With these factors at play, along with a history of inequitable vaccine distribution and vaccine hesitancy that has resurfaced with the Covid-19 pandemic, successful and effective vaccine distribution and uptake is unlikely. I propose that community outreach and educational programs are necessary to educate the public on HIV-1 and increase trust in vaccines.

Though my two research projects do not align directly, they do operate in series, and it is important to consider the aspects of both. While working on both projects, it was beneficial to consider the other. Researchers can get caught up in the scientific portions of their project, but it is also important to consider the downstream effects of their product and ensure that it is safe for all groups. This thoughtfulness can help to create a more inclusive vaccine. Additionally, it is important that the government and other agencies involved make sure the public is aware of the vaccine technology. This two-way street of transparency will be beneficial in the development of safe and effective vaccines that can be distributed and uptaken by the public safely and equitably.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
HIV-1, Carbon Nanotubes, Vaccine Distribution

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering

Technical Advisor: Yang Xu

STS Advisor: Richard Jacques

Technical Team Members: Isha Patel, Ahava Freeman

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