An AIDS vaccine — there’s still hope

syringe_Flickr_Nick Atkins PhotographyWill we ever have an AIDS vaccine? After numerous failed trials — including 2007’s infamous Merck trials — you could be forgiven for wondering whether HIV, the most complex human virus, is just too smart for us, with its constant, rapid mutation and ability to hide parts of itself from the immune system.

But hope is not lost, according to Wayne Koff, from the AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and University College London’s Robin Weiss. In the lunchtime session ‘An AIDS Vaccine: Mission Impossible?’ the researchers said that they have made a “significant amount of incremental advances” … but admitted that significant challenges remain.

Koff assured the session there are currently “about 30” vaccine candidates in clinical trials. Four of these are currently in efficacy trials, including a combination vaccine consisting of a shot of canarypox and a shot of protein vaccine.

And Weiss said that they have made big advances in identifying adjuvants, agents that stimulate the immune system and improve response to a vaccine.

But they don’t yet know how to elicit neutralising antibodies — an essential requirement of a successful vaccine.

Weiss said, “One can always use more money, but it’s the scientific and technical stumbling blocks that are the problem.”

They said that vital clues may lie in people who appear able to control or resist HIV infection.

Pressured in jest by Andrew Jack — pharmaceuticals correspondent for the Financial Times, who chaired the session — to give an estimate for “when?”, Weiss, who had earlier said “It’s not impossible but don’t pin me down for a date” reluctantly offered 20 years. Koff went with an infinitesimally better “less than 20”.

The results of the canarypox trial are expected at the end of this year. Will it go the way of Merck or will a new hope be born? In Koff’s words: “Wait and see … I wouldn’t want to take a crystal ball to it.”

A little bleak for a self-confessed optimist, perhaps? Still, maybe it’s better to hedge than hype in such matters.

Naomi  Antony

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