The largest conference on AIDS vaccine development is being held in Bangkok, Thailand FROM September 12th to the 15th. Researchers will discuss how to build on recent advances in a time of tight budgets.
Organizers of the conference, known as AV-2011, say a “safe and effective AIDS vaccine would be one of the greatest public health advances ever.” But they also admit it’s one of the “greatest scientific challenges.”
“This year’s meeting is particularly important in that the field’s at a very interesting place scientifically and institutionally in many respects. And this becomes a meeting where we will really get a sense of the enthusiasm that is clearly in the scientific community right now,” said
Mitchell Warren, head of AVAC, the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, who’s attending the Bangkok conference.
Getting back in the spotlight
Much of the public attention on AIDS vaccine research has been diverted in recent months to what’s happening in prevention. Studies show that antiretroviral drugs – when taken by an infected person – can prevent HIV transmission to a non-infected person. They also show that non HIV infected people can take the drugs as a preventive measure known as pre-exposure prophylaxis.
But while there have been prevention advances, vaccine researchers are beginning new work to find what are called broadly neutralizing antibodies. If successful, these antibodies would be able to block the many, many different strains of HIV that now exist.
And Warren said there was the success in 2009 of the RV-144 trial in Thailand. It proved that an AIDS vaccine is possible. It was the largest AIDS vaccine trial ever, with thousands of participants.
“We got the result two years ago, but it’s not as if that trial ended. For the last two years, an international team of collaborators has been looking at the samples that were collected during the course of that trial to try to assess why that vaccine worked at all. When we got the result two years ago the community was excited, but kind of not sure why that vaccine worked. And many vaccines that we use in our public health systems, we actually don’t know why they work or how they work,” he said.
In the early days of AIDS vaccine research, collaboration was not as common as it is today. In fact, many believed the sharing of data could hurt a researcher’s chances of publishing the work and receiving credit for it.
Warren said, “One of the things that has most excited me as an advocate for AIDS vaccines over the last couple of years is not only the scientific progress, but I think even more than that (is) the level of collaboration and coordination. For example, the collaborators coming out of RV-144 include over a hundred investigators in labs all over the world. People who might be seen as competitors in some ways are all collaborating to try to understand why we got the signal in RV-144 that we did.”
Warren is hopeful that collaboration and momentum can continue as budgets get tighter and tighter.