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Scientists See AIDS Vaccine Within Reach

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Thanks to a wide variety of medical breakthroughs over the years, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Since the virus’ peak in 1997, new infections have decreased by 21 percent as a result of prevention and drug advancements.

Despite this, there are still about 34 million people around the world infected with HIV, and 2.7 million new infections were diagnosed in 2010 alone. Experts have said a vaccine is our best bet for cutting down and doing away with the virus, and after nearly 30 years of work, a hint of success is reportedly on the horizon.

A 2009 study involving more than 16,000 adults in Thailand combined Sanofi’s ALVAC vaccine, a weaker version of a canary pox virus used to insert three HIV genes into the body, with AIDSVAX, a vaccine originally created by Genentech that carried an HIV surface protein.

Individual trials of both of these vaccines yielded poor results, so researchers were not confident that this combination would provide a different result. Needless to say, they were a little surprised to see that the combo cut HIV infections by 31.2 percent.

This number is not big enough to consider it effective, but the impact on HIV and AIDS research is huge. Scientists found that men and women vaccinated created antibodies specific to regions of the virus’s outer coat, suggesting this area is a key target for vaccines.

Researchers are currently preparing to do a follow-up trial with beefed-up versions of the vaccine. They plan to test it on men who have had sex with men in Thailand and heterosexuals in South Africa. This trial will still use the Sanofi vaccine, but a different candidate with a boosting agent from Novartis will be used in place of AIDSVAX. The vaccines still have to be reworked to work in South Africa, where the strain of HIV is different.

Large-scale effectiveness studies are expected to begin as soon as 2016. The goal is to reach at least 50 percent effectiveness, which could have a major impact on the AIDS epidemic. According to Colonel Nelson Michael, director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, this could be the breakthrough the world needs to have a HIV vaccine licensed by 2019.

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