DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — The same tool behind the most popular COVID-19 vaccines could be used to deliver a potential vaccine for HIV, Duke researchers say.

The team from the Duke Human Vaccine Institute published a report Tuesday in the journal Cell Reports that describes how the mRNA technology that works in the leading COVID vaccines could be used to stimulate HIV antibodies.

“This work demonstrates that we now have a practical platform for producing a complex HIV vaccine,” said Dr. Barton Haynes, the institute’s director and a co-senior author. “The mRNA technology has been highly successful for COVID-19, and we previously found that it was also effective for a Zika vaccine. But HIV is so much more complicated. This is a major step forward.”

The team found mRNAs — which use genetic material to teach immune cells to spot a pathogen — can encode the complex antigens that are critical to HIV vaccine development.

The virus that causes AIDS mutates rapidly, and only certain spots on the outer layer remain intact during those changes. That means a vaccine that works has to have well-structured proteins targeting those specific sites.

That has been a problem in previous attempts at an HIV vaccine.

The team says it built an mRNA vaccine that could encode for the acquisition of those mutations and monoclonal antibodies that neutralize the virus.

“I am excited that the mRNA-vaccine platform, which has helped to slow the spread of COVID-19 and decrease death from it, may be able to be put to work to protect people from HIV,” said Dr. Drew Weissman, a professor of vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school and a co-senior author who spent decades working on the mRNA technology that went into the COVID-19 vaccines.

“These remarkable results may mark the next era of mRNA research and healthier futures for more people,” he added.