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HIV Vaccine Remains Elusive

Above: Dr. Linda-Gail Bekker says the discovery of an HIV vaccine is crucial in the fight against AIDS.

Audio

Aired 7/22/09

AIDS is the number one killer in sub-Saharan Africa, and it's the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine to protect people against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. So far, the results have been disappointing. From the International Aids Conference in Capetown, South Africa, KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg tells us the search continues.

South African Andile Madondile says living with HIV has been a struggle.
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Above: South African Andile Madondile says living with HIV has been a struggle.

AIDS is the number one killer in sub-Saharan Africa, and it's the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Researchers have been trying to develop a vaccine to protect people against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. So far, the results have been disappointing. From the International Aids Conference in Capetown, South Africa, KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg tells us the search continues.

When Andile Madondile was diagnosed with HIV, his partner walked out on him. His boss fired him. And then things got worse.

"People, they started to isolate me, to put me aside, you know" Madondile recalls. "They said I mustn't come anywhere near to their children. And my friends, they started to push me aside, too. They said we can no longer stay with you because you are infected, you are living with HIV."

South Africa has been devastated by HIV. No country on earth has more people who are infected.

5.7 million South Africans are living with the virus. About 1,000 AIDS-related deaths happen every day here.

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Cape Town, South Africa


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Above:

KPBS health reporter Kenny Goldberg

is reporting from the International

Aids Conference in Capetown, South Africa.

Now, a new HIV vaccine is being tested in South Africa.

Dr. Linda-Gail Bekker is the principal investigator of the Cape Town wing of the trial.

She says the vaccine was designed and developed in South Africa.

"And this is the first HIV vaccine product that is going into human clinical trials that has come out of the continent of Africa," says Bekker. "So we're pretty proud of it, and we're very excited that, you know, it's been deemed important enough to actually putting it into humans to see how it will perform."

It's a phase one trial, meaning the vaccine is being tested to see if it's safe in humans.

The vast majority of drugs that enter clinical trials fail. And so far, HIV vaccines have had a dismal track record.

Dr. Jeffrey Sturchio is a former executive at the pharmaceutical company Merck. He says HIV is a tough virus.

"Because what it does is take over the body's machinery, and it begins using the cell's machinery to create copies of itself," Sturchio points out. "So that in itself is difficult. But also, when it replicates, it makes a lot of errors in terms of the genetic code that HIV has. So that leads to lots of genetic variation. And also we don't know what's invariant in HIV."

The quest for an HIV vaccine suffered a major blow in 2007. A clinical trial of a vaccine developed by Merck was terminated early, after it was found that it did not prevent infection.

Currently, there are about 30 HIV vaccines undergoing clinical trials worldwide. The results of the biggest one to date will be announced in September. It involved 16,000 people in Thailand.

Dr. Alan Bernstein is executive director of the non-profit Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, an alliance of researchers and advocates.

He says there have been two major scientific advancements that could offer some clues.

"There's some beautiful work that's gone on in the past year or so, that's identified those sequences in HIV, that really can't mutate and still make an infectious virus," says Bernstein. "I think the other is, it looks like when a person is infected with HIV, of the swarm of viruses that go in, only one virus establishes itself."

The question is whether scientists will be able to exploit that information to make an effective vaccine.

Dr. Linda-Gail Bekker admits it's highly unlikely the vaccine she's testing will be successful. But she says it's important to keep things in perspective.

"Polio, yellow fever, these other vaccines, took a long time to develop," Bekker says. "It's not easy. Obviously if we can get it done it's going to change the face of HIV in the world, because we know that a prophylactic vaccine is probably the only way to really stop the epidemic in its tracks."

Researchers say there's an enormous sense of urgency to find a vaccine.

AIDS-related illnesses kill more than 7,400 people every day.

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