New Research Motivates Doctors at 2013 AIDS Vaccine Conference

By Dr. Jeffrey Safrit | October 23, 2013

Researchers from around the world gathered at the 2013 AIDS Vaccine in Barcelona, Spain, reigniting passion and a global commitment to finding an AIDS Vaccine.

Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise

This October, more than 900 scientists, clinicians, advocates, and community members gathered in Barcelona, Spain for AIDS Vaccine 2013 – the 13th annual conference dedicated to AIDS vaccine research and discovery. Since the first conference in New York City in 2000, the HIV vaccine field has been on a long roller coaster ride of ups and downs with the results of large trials being mostly negative, although the knowledge gained has been enormous.

The field has been ratcheting slowly back up the hill since the 2009 conference, when the results of a large trial in Thailand became the first HIV vaccine trial to show promise.  That trial, known as RV-144, produced a 30 percent effective vaccine regimen against HIV infection. For the past four years we have been trying to learn from that success as well as the more numerous failures.

That’s why the theme of AIDS Vaccine 2013 was “Progress, Partnership and Perseverance.” This final element, perseverance, has been a critical trait of those involved in the search for an effective AIDS vaccine. In 1984 we were as much as promised a vaccine within two years by then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Margaret Heckler. Although we've come a long way in these 30 years, there is still a long way to go and perseverance is key.

This year, several studies reminded us why there is reason for hope, while helping us better understand why previous trials may or may not have worked.  An exciting set of experiments by Dr. Louis Picker and colleagues at Oregon Health Sciences University showed that it is possible for an immune response to the vaccine he developed that could clear the virus and potentially cure the infection.  While this vaccine is not yet in human trials and challenges remain, we are optimistic.

In trying to understand more about the positive immune responses that RV-144 elicited in Thai volunteers, Drs. Genevieve Fouda and Sallie Permar and their colleagues at Duke University presented results that reported immune responses in infants vaccinated with very similar products years ago;  in some cases  the infants responded better to the vaccine than adults trial participants. These results bode well for the follow-up trials to RV-144, which are ongoing or set to begin within the next two years.

And in follow-up studies to the Step and HVTN 505 trials, clinical trials where the vaccine products did not protect against HIV infection, Dr. Georgia Tomares, also from Duke University, showed that the positive responses seen in RV-144 and the infants as noted above, did not occur in the Step and 505 vaccine recipients, potentially explaining why those vaccines were not even partially protective.

As the vaccine field moves forward, it will have to do so without a standalone HIV vaccine conference.  Next year, vaccine research will be presented alongside HIV prevention research (microbicides and antiretroviral-based prevention) at the first-ever HIV Research for Prevention Conference. This is, in fact, a welcome development as both microbicide and antiretroviral-based prevention have had a series of recent successes that have both informed and challenged the vaccine field to reach for the sky and let go of the roller coaster handgrips … hoping for an exciting ride to come!

To learn more about the work of researchers like Dr. Safrit and others from the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF), click here.

Dr. Jeffrey  Safrit is EGPAF’s Director of Clinical and Basic Research based in Los Angeles, CA.