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February 14, 2008 8:03 pm

Aids vaccine ‘no nearer’

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The world is no closer to developing an Aids vaccine now than it was when HIV was discovered, in spite of 25 years of intense scientific effort, one of the world’s leading authorities on the virus said on Thursday.

But David Baltimore, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the AAAS annual meeting in Boston that the scientific world should not give up in despair at its failure.

“Every year [since the early 1980s] I have been saying that an Aids vaccine is at least 10 years away and I am still saying that today,” said Prof Baltimore, professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology. “Some people are saying now that it will never happen but I want to take an optimistic stance; this is too important to give up on.”

The challenge is so great because, unlike other viruses, HIV has evolved two ways of resisting the human immune system. It avoids attack by the host’s antibodies and immune cells.

The failure last year of the most ambitious clinical trial so far, an HIV vaccine made by Merck of the US, “left the [scientific] community depressed because we see no hopeful route to success,” said Prof Baltimore.

His response, funded by the Gates Foundation, is to try a wholly new approach – attacking HIV through a combination of gene therapy, immunologic therapy and stem cell therapy that has never been tried before. Scientists hope to introduce new HIV-fighting genes into blood stem cells.

Preparatory work for the project at Caltech shows that “it is as difficult as we imagined,” said Prof Baltimore, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering the key enzyme that HIV uses to reproduce. “We are still in the stage of developing the tools, the systems and the materials we need to even attempt a serious test of the idea.”

He compared the latest HIV vaccine project to a “Hail Mary pass” in American football, a long throw forward made in desperation with little chance of success. “To control HIV immunologically the scientific community has to beat out nature – do something that nature, with its advantage of 4bn years of evolution, has not been able to do,” he said.

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