Major effort to find cure will bring together international network of HIV scientists to identify most effective medications
SEATTLE More than 20 years after scientists began searching for an HIV vaccine, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a major effort to bring together researchers from around the world with a collaborative new business model.
On July 19, the foundation announced 16 grants totaling $287 million over five years to set up an international network of HIV vaccine scientists. A third of the money five of the grants will pay for central laboratories and data analysis facilities to test researchers’ findings.
The hope is to more definitively identify the most effective vaccine approaches and then direct future efforts toward those ideas, said Dr. Nicholas Hellmann, acting director of the Gates Foundation’s HIV, TB and reproductive health program.
“Unfortunately, developing an effective HIV vaccine has proven to be tremendously difficult, and despite the committed efforts of many researchers around the world, progress simply has not been fast enough,” Hellmann said.
The $287 million commitment is the Gates Foundation’s single largest investment in the area of HIV-AIDS research. Before the announcement, the foundation had already announced HIV-AIDS grants totaling more than $10 million in 2006. Total grants in this area in 2005 were more than $53 million.
Each of the 165 investigators in 19 countries who are getting money in this series of grants had to agree to share findings in real time and compare results with others even if the researchers had been working on competing projects in the past.
Historically, HIV vaccine research mostly has been conducted by small research groups working independently, said Dr. Juliana McElrath, associate head of the infectious diseases program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and a lead researcher on one of the new grants.
“While critical progress has been made, the HIV vaccine field has lacked a shared, focused strategy,” she said.
McElrath spoke about the lack of standardized tools to compare results and ways to share information quickly. She noted that research teams usually decide on their own whether to pursue a particular approach and vaccine candidates from different researchers are not usually compared.
“As a result, there’s no guarantee that the best vaccine candidate will be the one that is rapidly advanced through clinical trials,” she said.
Hellmann said the new level of collaboration being created through this series of grants is critical to making HIV vaccine development more efficient, but he acknowledged that an effective vaccine may still be 10 years away.
The 11 grants going to research projects are evenly split between groups seeking to find antibodies that will neutralize HIV, and those researchers trying to find a way to elicit cellular immunity. Hellmann said the ultimate vaccine may combine both approaches.
The foundation took its direction from another project it supported. An international alliance of researchers, funders and advocates published a “Scientific Strategic Plan of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise” in February 2005. It outlined six priorities: vaccine discovery, laboratory standardization, manufacturing, clinical trials capacity, regulatory capacity and intellectual property.
A quarter of the grants two for vaccine research and two for infrastructure are going to researchers in Seattle.
“Seattle has really been a major epicenter of HIV vaccine research,” Hellmann said.
Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, complimented the Gates Foundation on the approach it was taking, but warned against assuming that this is enough money to finish the work.
“Funding for AIDS vaccine research is still short of what we need,” Warren said, sharing a figure of $682 million that a group of organizations figured was the total spent on HIV vaccine research in 2004 from all sources.
He said the group’s best estimate is that scientists need more than $1 billion a year to move toward developing an effective HIV vaccine.
Hellmann agreed, “the reality is when you look at the numbers, the amount of money being spent on vaccine research, it’s about half what is required to address all the scientific issues.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, July 28, 2006.