Thai trial

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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

HIV Vaccine Awareness Day | 

by hitthatswitch, Flickr

It’s HIV Vaccine Awareness Day.

So you should, at the very least, be aware that for the first time in decades there’s optimism in the field of HIV vaccine research. We appear to be making progress.

I attended a big AIDS vaccine research meeting in Atlanta last fall, at which there was almost a kind of giddiness among scientists who for decades had been frustrated time after time, making little progress. A clinical trial in Thailand, run by the U.S. military in collaboration with Thai scientists, showed for the first time that a vaccine could prevent infection.

Yet the public, I bemoaned at the time, was barely paying any attention .

“This is an exciting time in HIV prevention research,” said Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition.

Most of the public attention is on advances in treatment, Warren said, though last week scientists showed that treatment is prevention by documenting (again) that getting HIV-infected on drugs helps prevent the spread of HIV — a finding that some say is a “gamechanger” in the global fight against HIV.

“At the same time, it is important that the progress in the search for an AIDS vaccine not be over-looked,” Warren said.