Progress in the Fight Against AIDS and HIV

Thirty years after the first report of AIDS, there's plenty of news about efforts to create vaccines that protect against HIV infection and boost the immune systems of people already infected.

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Novel HIV-Vaccine Candidate?

Another major effort includes the early research dollars that the National Institutes of Health and the Gates Foundation are providing to the University of Maryland for entirely new vaccine concepts based on other scientific ideas.

The funding was awarded to the university's Institute of Human Virology, headed by the renowned Robert C. Gallo, M.D., who helped discover the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS and later developed the HIV blood test. If effective, the novel HIV-vaccine candidate would neutralize "many different strains of HIV." Previous vaccine candidates responded only to a single type of the disease.

"With the possibility of an HIV vaccine that could prevent many different strains of this disease, we could indeed be changing the world," says E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Reece, who is African American, describes the new vaccine candidate's potential as "extraordinary."

New Proteins

The third major focus of research "has gotten a lot of people excited," says AVAC's Warren. "That's been the discovery of more than a dozen new neutralizing antibodies. For almost 30 years of the epidemic, there were only a few known antibodies ... Scientists broke the code and [can] find additional areas of the HIV virus that might be better targets." Neutralizing antibodies defend cells from an infection by working to inhibit, or "neutralize," the pathogen's effect.

One recent example: Scientists in Oregon recently announced an experimental vaccine that helped monkeys with a form of HIV control their infections for more than a year. This is the first time that a vaccine candidate has been able to "fully control the virus in some animals," Wayne C. Koff, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at IAVI, told Reuters.

Some Progress on Therapeutic Vaccines

Positive developments have also occurred with therapeutic vaccines, intended to one day boost the ravaged immune systems of people living with HIV/AIDS.

This approach appears particularly promising for African and Caribbean nations, where many patients do not have easy access to lifesaving ARVs. An estimated 5.7 million HIV-positive people live in South Africa alone, more than in any other nation.