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September 06, 2010

New AIDS Vaccine Strategic Plan Unveiled

by Joe DeCapua

A new strategic plan for AIDS vaccine research was unveiled Tuesday.  It’s the culmination of an 18-month effort that included the input of 400 scientists worldwide.

The new Scientific Strategic Plan – developed by the Council of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise - appears in the journal Nature Medicine. It offers what’s called a “forward looking framework to speed development, execution and analysis of HIV vaccine trials.”

“The plan is really a high-level document that specifies for all the major stakeholders in the field – all the major funders – the direction in which the field should go,” says Alan Bernstein executive director of the vaccine enterprise.

Looking ahead

He adds it’s time for researchers to have a new vision.

“The plan says we need to think differently, completely differently, about (vaccine) trials.  And rather than thinking about them as the culmination of a series of basic science experiments, we need to now think about them as an integral part of the discovery process to get a vaccine.  And we need to therefore organize differently to reflect that thinking.”

Late last year, a trial in Thailand proved that a vaccine candidate can offer some protection against HIV infection.  It wasn’t good enough to put on the market, but it was a big step forward.

“That really has been a landmark trial, landmark moment for the field.  And there’s also been a number of very important advances in this field, basic science advances.  And so I think we’re at a really important moment in time for the HIV vaccine research field,” he says.

The success in Thailand actually followed disappointing news in what was called the STEP trial.  Merck stopped the trial on what was considered a very promising vaccine candidate when it learned it was ineffective.  Bernstein says in scientific research there are no guarantees.

“You know what? In science it’s not always one step forward, one step forward.  It’s quite often one step forward, two steps backwards.  That’s just the nature of science.  And if it was always forward, we would have solved every human disease by now.  And so I think we need to be prepared and acknowledge that this is tough.”

What should be done

The Strategic Scientific Plan makes a number of recommendations.

“Bringing together basic scientists and pre-clinical scientists and the people who do trials to actually think as one.  Another major priority is every field, but including the HIV vaccine field, needs to be proactively scanning what’s going on elsewhere and say we can take advantage of that.  We can use that technology,” he says.

Other recommendations include the rapid sharing of scientific data among researchers around the world and enlisting the help of industry in developing a vaccine.  Bernstein says industry may have shied away from being proactive due to the difficulties in blocking HIV infection and concerns over funding and finding profitable markets.

Bernstein says, “We need to now sit down with industry and say, look, we’ve made a lot of progress.  We think there’s light at the end of this tunnel.  We need to have strategic partnering with you in a way that works for you and a way that works for us and a way that works for people who are at risk of getting HIV so that we will get a vaccine as quickly as possible.  Because at the end of the day we will not get a vaccine without industry.”

The head of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise says it’s fair to ask: when will an effective vaccine be available?  But he says no one has the answer to that question yet.  He says, though, it’ll be sooner rather than later if the strategic plan is implemented.