An AIDS Vaccine at Last?

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Aug. 31, 2006


No one denies the lifesaving power of the antiretroviral medications that have done so much to control HIV in infected people over the last decade. But nor does anyone think that they're the end of the story. The real goal is?as it's always been?a vaccine, a true knockout blow that would at last send AIDS the way of polio and smallpox. A new study in Sweden suggests that that much-sought-after day may have just gotten a little closer.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute and the Swedish Institute for Infectious Diseases Control have completed a first round of tests of a new AIDS vaccine in healthy human volunteers and are thrilled with the results. The vaccine is made from selected bits of the genetic code of HIV, more than enough to make it unmistakably recognizable to the body, but far less than an entire killed or weakened virus, which could, in theory, cause the disease it's supposed to prevent. A fourth dose, made of another bit of HIV DNA piggybacking on a cowpox virus, was added as a booster. This aggressive approach yielded impressive results: Fully 90% of the subjects developed an immune response to the virus, meaning antibodies were produced which, if they rose to the right levels, could protect the body from a live virus should it ever come along.

What it means: The news is stirring enthusiasm for a couple of reasons. First of all, the preparation produced a more robust immune response than any similar vaccine ever had before. What's more, the variety of DNA types used in the manufacturing process might protect against a range of the strains of HIV at large in Africa and the West. Since the virus is so lethally versatile?mutating easily from person to person or even within a single person?a vaccine that casts so wide a net is essential.

The next step is another trial?set to commence in the fall?on a larger population in Tanzania, where the AIDS problem is decidedly more pressing than it is in Sweden. The researchers will use the opportunity not only to test the vaccine, but to train local doctors in how to perform the necessary follow-up studies, in order to speed the research process and, perhaps, the eventual development of a final vaccine. In the quarter-century war against AIDS, this is by no means a final victory, but it is a very welcome win.



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