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Professor One Step Closer to HIV Vaccine

A professor of bio-molecular engineering has announced that he is close to perfecting a fully-functional HIV vaccine.

Professor Phil Berman is a pioneer in the arena of recombinant vaccines. He has been searching for an HIV vaccine for almost thirty years. Since his arrival at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2006, he has received millions of dollars in grants from the National Institutes of Health in pursuit of his goal.

This is not the first time Berman has announced major progress. According to a press release from the university, the current vaccine is a refinement of an older iteration called AIDSVAX, which Berman came up with while he was working for the biotech company Genetech in the 1990s. Between 2003 and 2009, AIDSVAX underwent trials on 16,000 people in Thailand. During the trials, it demonstrated a 31 percent success rate at preventing new HIV infections. This is still the only time an HIV vaccine has had a success rate that high.

However, at a success rate of 31 percent, it is not quite ready to put on the market. Regulatory agencies require at least a 60 percent success rate before a vaccine can be released to the general public. Berman has been slowly reworking the original vaccine’s formula to be more potent and effective. HIV is a virus capable of spontaneously mutating, so the vaccine needs to have “broadly neutralizing antibodies” to attack any and all HIV pathogens.

HIV and AIDS killed roughly 1.5 million people in 2013. This number is dwarfed by the people infected by HIV and AIDS. According to UNAIDS, 35 million people are living with HIV and AIDS, and of those 35 million, 19 million did not know they were infected.

Part of what makes HIV so terrifying is the stigma associated with it. Many still view the disease as a death sentence, and most people still consider it a shameful thing. The attitude around the disease makes people unlikely to get themselves tested. Despite growing testing campaigns by many governments, there is still an epidemic of people who are unaware they are infected by HIV or AIDS.

Berman’s vaccine is different from the other vaccines currently being researched. It focuses on a particular sugar on the virus’s complex surface. If successful, the antibodies in the vaccine should be able to penetrate the virus and bind to it before the host is infected.

“The kind of vaccine we’re making is to prevent infection all together, so that the virus never establishes this big library of variants,” Berman said to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “We’re trying to create complete protection so that the virus never gets a foothold.”

If Berman succeeds, the battle against the global pandemic of AIDS and HIV will have an invaluable new weapon. Someday soon, it may even join the ranks of smallpox or the Black Death – a disease remembered, but no longer experienced.

– Marina Middleton

Sources: Science.Mic, University of California, Santa Cruz
Photo: Fenway Institute