Unexpected progress on HIV/AIDS vaccine

>> http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/25/health/research/25aids.html

This week saw an unexepected success in HIV/AIDS research, with the announcement of the results of a vaccine-related study conducted in Thailand.

Scientists said Thursday that a new AIDS vaccine, the first ever declared to protect a significant minority of humans against the disease, would be studied to answer two fundamental questions: why it worked in some people but not in others, and why those infected despite vaccination got no benefit at all.

The vaccine — known as RV 144, a combination of two genetically engineered vaccines, neither of which had worked before in humans — was declared a qualified success after a six-year clinical trial on more than 16,000 volunteers in Thailand. Those who were vaccinated became infected at a rate nearly one-third lower than the others, the sponsors said Thursday morning.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, commented on the importance of these results:

“For more than 20 years now, vaccine trials have essentially been failures,” Dr. Fauci said. “Now it’s like we were groping down an unlit path, and a door has been opened. We can start asking some very important questions.”

Mitchell Warren, who heads the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, discussed the implications of the findings:

“We often talk about whether a vaccine is even possible. . . . This is not the vaccine that ends the epidemic and says, ‘O.K., let’s move on to something else.’ But it’s a fabulous new step that takes us in a new direction.”

Researchers have admitted that they don’t know how or why this vaccine protected the people it did, or why it showed no real benefit to others who received it, not even lowering levels of HIV in the blood of those who contracted the virus after receiving the vaccine.  As scientists puzzle over the results, it is clear that many years of work remain.

Still, the study provides new insights, and a ray of hope for a field where pessimism often wins the day.  Previous vaccine trials have failed, sometimes spectacularly, and when this trial began many experts saw it as a waste of time and resources.

The takeaway: even the modest success of this trial is truly cause for celebration.

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~ by h.e.g. on September 26, 2009.

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