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Editorial: Grim Outlook for an AIDS Vaccine


Back in 1984, federal health officials, flush with excitement over discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, famously predicted that they would have a vaccine ready for market within three years. Now, after almost a quarter-century of toil and struggle, the effort has crashed in failure. No one yet knows whether a vaccine to prevent the disease will ever be possible.

David Baltimore, a Nobel-winning biologist, sounded a note of despair in an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February. He noted that the virus has evolved in a way that makes it virtually impossible to attack by priming the immune system, the usual goal of a vaccine. Repeated efforts have failed, he said, leaving "no hopeful route to success." The best hope, he said, may lie in the biological equivalent of a "Hail Mary" pass - a wholly new approach that would combine gene therapy, stem cells and immunologic therapy to thwart the disease.

At a conference at the National Institutes of Health last Tuesday, AIDS experts assessed how to proceed after the failure of the most promising vaccine candidate in two large clinical trials last year. Early results showed that those who received the vaccine may actually have been more likely to become infected with the virus than those who did not.

At least one organization that treats AIDS patients has called for giving up on a vaccine and shifting the money to testing, treatment and prevention. That is too defeatist. Federal health officials are rightly determined to increase financing for basic laboratory research, curtail big clinical trials of existing vaccine candidates, and funnel money to researchers with novel ideas. There is little doubt that a vaccine would be the most effective and cheapest way to shrink the AIDS epidemic.


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Information in this article was accurate in March 30, 2008. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.