amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Progress in the Quest for an HIV Vaccine?


May 19, 2005— No major viral epidemic has ever been brought under control without a vaccine, and the world faces major scientific, political, and social challenges in the quest for an AIDS vaccine, according to prominent AIDS vaccine experts at a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences on May 11.

At the meeting, moderated by amfAR’s senior scientific consultant for programs Dr. Jeffrey Laurence, several panelists discussed what has been discovered so far in the search for a vaccine and laid out many of the remaining scientific challenges, the social and political complexities in the distribution of a vaccine once it becomes available, and how each of us has a role to play in hastening the development of an AIDS vaccine. The panelists were Dr. David Ho, director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center; Dr. Emilio Emini, senior vice president for vaccine development at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI); freelance AIDS writer Dr. Patricia Kahn; and Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition.

The quest for an AIDS vaccine has stumped scientists for close to 25 years, and Dr. Ho listed a number of characteristics of HIV that continue to hinder the development of a vaccine. Since the human immune system does not normally have the wherewithal to keep the virus at bay, scientists have so far been unable to work out how to design a vaccine that could augment the function of the immune system so that it could, in fact, control or even eliminate the virus. Other challenges include the lack of an animal model that mimics HIV infection in all respects; the inability of established vaccine approaches for other diseases to keep HIV infection under control; and the extreme mutability of the virus, which rapidly escapes detection and destruction by the immune system.

While the development of a vaccine is the major stumbling block at present, the AIDS epidemic will not be brought under control until a vaccine can be administered on a global scale. This may sound straightforward until you consider that the polio vaccine was developed fifty years ago, but that efforts to eradicate polio globally using the vaccine are still ongoing. Clearly, such a wait is unacceptable for HIV/AIDS, and efforts are underway to ensure that systems and capacity are in place for the roll-out of an AIDS vaccine. While we wait for the development of an AIDS vaccine, we must continue to implement those prevention techniques that are known to work, such as the use of condoms, while we maintain our efforts to develop other prevention techniques, such as microbicides.

Mitchell Warren urged audience members not to forget the contributions we can all make to AIDS vaccine development, whether or not we work in a laboratory. We can volunteer to participate in clinical trials of new vaccine candidates, we can urge lawmakers to make the development of an AIDS vaccine a top priority, and we can support research foundations, like amfAR, that continue to support the search for new vaccine concepts.