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Seattle’s Julie McElrath leading in the search for an effective AIDS vaccine | 

WHO

Map of the AIDS pandemic

Thirty years ago, Julie McElrath was a medical resident in Charleston, South Carolina, seeing young patients with rare illnesses, unusual forms of pneumonia or cancer, typically only seen in the elderly with weakened immune systems.

“We were trying to care for these people but we didn’t know what they had,” McElrath said. What they had was AIDS. The epidemic had emerged.

Three decades later, McElrath is one of the world’s leading scientists searching for what many believe is the best, perhaps only, hope of ending the pandemic. A vaccine.

“I do think a vaccine is what we will ultimately need,” she said. Recent studies that have shown that treatment can prevent spreading the infection to others is tremendous news, she said, but the logistics and expense of making that happen are daunting.

HIV Trials Network, Fred Hutchinson

Julie McElrath

Today, in her Seattle lab, the HIV Trials Network operated by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, she and her colleagues will open precious vials containing white blood cells collected from thousands of Thai research volunteers.

Not that long ago, many had given up on ever finding a vaccine against HIV.

Then, in late 2009, the Thai Prime-Boost vaccine trial (technically known as RV 144) stunned the skeptics, well, okay, almost everybody, by demonstrating that a vaccine could prevent infection. It wasn’t enough protection, but it was protection.

“It gave us hope that this was possible,” McElrath said. Continue reading