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A new report on AIDS vaccine research says there is renewed focus on discovery, innovation and basic science. But it warns political and community leaders must act now to ensure research continues during a global economic crisis.
The 13th annual report of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition (AVAC), "Piecing Together the HIV Prevention Puzzle," looks at recent research that has brought both disappointment and encouragement. AVAC executive director Mitchell Warren, in New York, says, "This year's report is really about putting all the pieces together. If you really think about, not just the search for an AIDS vaccine, but in fact the entire HIV prevention response, it really is a puzzle. And the good news is we have some new pieces of the puzzle and we're expecting additional new pieces of understanding through research this year."
None of the pieces alone will solve the mystery behind achieving an AIDS vaccine. Warren says that fitting them altogether in the right order "is really the way in which we can end the epidemic."
As for the report citing an energized focus on "discovery, innovation and basic science," he says, "We at AVAC actually believe that this is one of the most exciting times in AIDS vaccine research. And it's really for two reasons. One is scientific. There is new energy, new commitment to unlocking some of the basic scientific roadblocks that have impeded our ability to find a vaccine."
For example, also released Monday was news that scientists are trying to produce anti-bodies against HIV through "gene transfer." The method, which inserts the gene into a muscle, has proven successful in lab tests with animals. Warren says, "It doesn't mean we have an AIDS vaccine, but it means we have an entirely new approach to trying to deliver protection."
The second reason Warren is encouraged is that "the field has demonstrated a level of commitment coming out of the trial that ended about 18 months ago, the so-called STEP study of the Merck vaccine. And the field recognized that was a huge setback and it was a disappointment, but it wasn't the end of the road. And in fact one of the arguments we make in this year's AVAC report is the wealth of information we're getting even from the STEP study. A study that showed a product didn't work is actually providing us an unimaginable amount of information.
Warren is concerned about the possible effects of the economic crisis on research funding. He says, "As dangerous and as difficult as the virus itself is, certainly the current economic environment puts up a whole new challenge for all of us. I believe that every dollar spent is going to be held up to a greater scrutiny as budgets tighten and as funders have to re-examine their priorities."
However, he says it could cost more on the long run if scientific research is not fully funded. "Yes, we must re-commit those resources…. Without it, we will not only incur much a greater public health catastrophe, but I would argue that the economic catastrophes to come if we don't respond aggressively to HIV will actually have repercussions that will…make the current economic crisis pale in comparison."