Researchers in Ontario have put a preventative HIV vaccine to the test for the first time, and say the initial results are an “exciting” step toward creating a commercialized HIV vaccine.

The SAV001-H vaccine, lauded as a one-of-a-kind venture in Canada, was tested on HIV-positive volunteers last spring following approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

After randomized tests conducted on infected men and women between 18 and 50 years of age, researchers say they’ve observed no adverse physical effects in their volunteers.

“These interim results have proven the safety ... of this vaccine in humans,” Dr. Dong Joon Kim, of Sumagen Co., the biotechnology company that is helping researchers at the University of Western Ontario develop the vaccine.

Unlike other injections, SAV001-H is the first preventative HIV vaccine based on a genetically modified killed whole virus, meaning it includes elements of the virus without causing infection.

The intent behind this strategy -- which has been used in vaccines for polio, the flu, hepatitis A and more -- is to inspire increased antibody production.

Antibodies are proteins in the blood used to fight specific antigens, or infections.

Dr. Chil-Yong Kang, of Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, said the advantage of the “killed whole virus” approach is that it teaches the body how to respond to the virus. 

“New responses to native structure will be elicited and it can provide a protective immunity,” he told reporters at a news conference held Tuesday in London, Ont.

Kang said the initial results showed a significant increase in antibody production in participants, without causing any unusual responses to the volunteers’ immune system.

The only minor effect, he said, was that some participants experienced muscle and joint pain at the site of the injections -- similar to the soreness one would feel when getting the flu shot.

It’s estimated that 34 million people around the world have Human Immunodeficiency Virus, a progressive illness that targets the immune system. The last stage of the infection is AIDS.

At last count, in 2008, the Public Health Agency of Canada estimated that approximately 65,000 people in Canada were living with HIV -- a 14-per-cent increase in three years.

Currently, there is no proven cure for AIDS or preventative HIV vaccine in existence, but treatment available can greatly improve one’s quality of life.

Buoyed by the results of the first clinical trial, Kang said his research team at Western will be moving on to phase two: testing the vaccine in humans that are not infected with HIV.