Harvard News Services

Course change.
Ronald Desrosiers says NIH has its AIDS vaccine priorities wrong.

Experts: AIDS Vaccine Research Has "Lost Its Way"

Jon is a staff writer for Science.

BOSTON--Two prominent researchers have bluntly assessed the depressing state of AIDS vaccine research and have urged the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to correct its course.

In back-to-back plenary talks at the 15th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections today, Ronald Desrosiers, director of the New England Primate Research Center in nearby Southborough, said he thought that NIH--the world's largest funder of AIDS vaccine research--had "lost its way," spending too much money on developing and testing products and not enough on basic research. Virologist Neal Nathanson, a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania who formerly headed NIH's Office of AIDS Research, echoed Desrosiers's plea that more money go toward risky, innovative studies.

The trigger for the unusually harsh public critiques of the field came last fall, when an AIDS vaccine that many considered the best prospect in development bombed in large clinical trials (Science, 16 November 2007, p. 1048). Recapping that failure, Desrosiers, who tests AIDS vaccines in monkeys, went so far as to contend that a useful vaccine is not even on the horizon. "None of the products in the pipeline stand any chance of being effective," asserted Desrosiers, because the field is hampered by many unknowns, such as an understanding of which immune responses a vaccine must elicit. "We need to do a much better job of bringing to clinical testing only products that show significant promise."

Clinical studies receive about one-third of the nearly $600 million that NIH spends on AIDS vaccine research a year, most of it coming from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). In January, Desrosiers and 13 other researchers privately wrote NIAID Director Anthony Fauci about their concerns that the field was adrift. "The letter was a good outside tweak about something that I was already thinking," Fauci told Science at the meeting here. Fauci said NIAID plans to hold a daylong AIDS vaccine "summit" on 25 March to explore how to move forward. It will be open to the public and webcast. "The real issue is the balance that we want between discovery research and development," said Fauci. "We need to take a time out."

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