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Scientists crowdfunding AIDS vaccine, want to give it away for free

By reverse engineering the mechanisms of people born with natural immunity to AIDS, a team of scientists is working to bring a free AIDS vaccine to all the world.

(Credit: The Immunity Project)

By reverse engineering the mechanisms of people born with natural immunity to AIDS, a team of scientists is working to bring a free AIDS vaccine to all the world.

This has the potential to change the world: a team of scientists is working to crowdfund an AIDS vaccine currently in development so that they can give it away to everyone.

AIDS has always been a difficult disease to treat. Like the flu, the virus mutates, and it can hide dormant in the host's cells, thereby evading anti-retro viral drug therapy, to flare up later. However, there is a very small percentage of people in whom the HIV remains permanently dormant.

Known as long-term nonprogressors, or elite controllers, these are the focus of the work of the Immunity Project. Controllers have long been considered the key to unlocking an AIDS vaccine, and the Immunity Project has created a prototype vaccine by reverse engineering the mechanism whereby controllers keep AIDS sleeping.

"The essence of controllers' immunity is the unique targeting capability contained within their immune systems," the team wrote. "Like the finely tuned laser scope on a sniper rifle, the immune systems of controllers have the ability to target the biological markers on the HIV virus that are its Achilles heel. When a controller's immune system attacks these biological markers it forces the virus into a dormant state. Non controllers have sniper rifles, but they are missing this critical targeting ability."

The vaccine, which has been in development since 2010, has so far only been tested on animals — but with overwhelmingly positive results. Now, the team is seeking further funding in order to complete the final experimental phase and begin Phase I clinical trials with the US FDA.

This isn't just some flash-in-the-pan, either. The scientists working on the project come from a collaboration between top US universities Stanford, MIT and Harvard. Microsoft Research has provided backing, as has Y Combinator. The original idea was conceived by Dr Bruce Walker from Harvard, Dr David Heckerman of Microsoft e-Science Research and Dr. Reid Rubsamen, founder of Flow Pharma. These are serious researchers who know their work.

One might imagine that, with such clout, it wouldn't be terribly difficult to get investor funding, but therein lies the problem: most investors expect to see a return on their investments, and pharmaceutical companies make far too much money to even consider free access to life-saving drugs.

If all goes according to plan — and so far, it has — the team hopes to have Phase III clinical trials and widespread global vaccination occurring in 2016.

"Over 35 million people are currently living with HIV. Each day an additional 7000 become infected with the virus. Each day over 4000 people die from AIDS — the equivalent to 10 747s falling out of the sky every single day. HIV has taken nearly 30 million lives since 1983," the team wrote.

The Immunity Project is hoping to raise US$482,000. The Immunity Project webpage has good breakdown of where those funds will be allocated. Head over to find more information and pledge your support.

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