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Seattle Scientists' Fresh Look At Vaccine Could Be Big Break For HIV Prevention

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
via Flickr
A vaccine trials network led by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center will lead new trials on a possible HIV vaccine next year.

Even as momentum builds for an Ebola vaccine, researchers working to contain another virus say they’ve gotten their first big break in years. An older HIV vaccine candidate is showing new promise, and Seattle scientists will be leading a new trial of it early next year.

The vaccine is based on a formulation first tested in Thailand in 2003, and found to be just 30 percent effective after three years. But recently researchers tested the same vaccine on 68 people from South Africa, and found that it had similar effects even though it was tailored to the strain of virus common in Thailand, not Africa.

That means the vaccine could prove to be more widely applicable — and more effective — than previously believed.

“They think they can get it up to 50, 60 percent effective and have it be sustainable,” said Tom Paulson, editor of the global health news site Humanosphere. Paulson spoke from Cape Town, South Africa, where researchers announced the news at an AIDS prevention conference.

“If you can get it out there and it’s cheap enough, you're going to save millions of lives. And people are fairly hopeful that this trial will succeed in finally giving the world an effective AIDS vaccine,” Paulson said.

A team led by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center will launch a trial of the vaccine in January. The Seattle-based center operates the world’s largest publicly-funded HIV vaccine trials network.

The vaccine candidate will be optimized for the strain of HIV most common in Africa, while the U.S. military will study the Thai version in Thailand once again. HIV-AIDS kills an estimated 1.5 million people each year.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.