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The Future Is Now

The Future Is Now


A string of clinical-trial failures and other significant setbacks have placed HIV vaccine research at a tenuous crossroads. Following the 2007 washout of Merck's highly touted vaccine candidate, the United Kingdom's Independent took a poll of 35 leading AIDS scientists and found profound pessimism about the imminence of an effective vaccine. Some even say such a breakthrough would likely always remain a fantasy. But such attitudes have not slowed the New York City'based International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, which in November unveiled the world's first laboratory devoted exclusively to HIV vaccine research. Built in Brooklyn, the $17 million state-of-the-art research center has an annual operating budget of about $10 million, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The lab will serve as a melting pot for scientific discovery, bridging the gap between academia and 'Big Pharma.' The center's team of 30 scientists, culled from both fields, will build on emerging HIV research to prioritize candidates with the greatest likelihood for success, conduct preliminary efficacy trials, and then farm out the most promising candidates to pharmaceutical companies with the resources needed to conduct large-scale clinical trials. 'The expectation is you'll see an acceleration of better candidates entering into the pipeline,' says Wayne Koff, Ph.D., senior vice president for research and development at the lab. 'And we fully anticipate to see that.' But not all AIDS leaders are as optimistic about the lab's mission or HIV vaccine research as a whole. Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, feels that the billions spent on vaccine studies around the globe should be directed elsewhere. 'The reality is that we've been doing this research for more than 25 years,' he says, 'and we're no closer to having a vaccine than we were on the first day. Meanwhile, with the money that's being spent on vaccines, we could [provide antiretroviral treatment] to millions of people who don't currently have the medications that do work.' While acknowledging the importance of antiretroviral treatment, Seth Berkley, president and chief executive of the IAVI, insists that a vaccine'and not a lifetime regimen of medications to manage the disease'is the only real hope for ridding the world of AIDS. 'Historically,' he says, 'vaccines have been the most powerful and cost-effective means of ending major viral epidemics.' And the IAVI isn't alone in its optimism for vaccine development. In February technology titan Phillip Terrence Ragon pledged $100 million of his vast fortune to create an HIV vaccine research center in Boston, to be jointly run by Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University.

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