Opinion : Supporting HIV Vaccine Research This Holiday Season - by Salim Abdool Karim

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November 20, 2013

Supporting HIV Vaccine Research This Holiday Season

by Salim Abdool Karim

An epidemiologist seeks funding for the Immunity Project.

Salim Karim
Salim Karim
HIV research advances over the past several years have given me great hope that children born today will live in a world free of HIV/AIDS one day. For example, we know that drugs used to treat AIDS are also, as tablets and gels, effective at preventing HIV infection. Moreover, we have learnt that treatment of HIV infection suppresses the virus and thereby drastically reduces the risk of an HIV positive person on treatment from spreading HIV to others. If we could just ensure access to antiretroviral therapy for all people living with HIV worldwide, we could have a substantial effect on the spread of HIV.

But we also know that ensuring access to treatment is harder than it sounds. That is why we also need other HIV prevention options like a preventative HIV vaccine. Such a vaccine would be a game changer and save countless lives. Though a dramatic scale-up of existing prevention interventions would allow us to reach what The New York Times has called that critical tipping point where “the annual increase in new patients being treated with AIDS drugs exceeds the number of people newly infected,” a vaccine would be the ultimate tool in getting us to the end of the epidemic.

That’s why I’m pleased to be a part of a team, known as the Immunity Project. This team is developing a novel HIV vaccine that is based on the immune responses of HIV infected patients who can naturally suppress the virus.

The idea is not at all as far-fetched as it may sound. To develop the vaccine candidate, the Immunity Project team has developed a machine capable of learning algorithms – similar to what is used in the most advanced email spam filtering software – to identify the Achilles heel biological markers on the HIV virus. The vaccine formulation consists of these markers and FDA approved chemicals that can elicit an immune system capable of preventing HIV. The Project’s formulation enables the vaccine prototype to be stored in inert powder form, delivered to patients through a nasal inhaler, and stored without refrigeration.

The Immunity Project HIV vaccine prototype has yielded positive results in animals and is now ready for the first-in-humans safety studies.

And now, you can play a role in supporting this study, just by buying a gift card this December. Unlike past HIV vaccine clinical trials that have relied solely on government and donor funding, the Immunity Project is embracing its Silicon Valley roots and seeking alternative sources of funding for its clinical trial.

One method, launching today, is a simple-to-understand partnership with a revolutionary gift card platform called Gyft. Ordinary people like you and I who buy gift cards on Gyft.com (or via its mobile app) during the month of December will be supporting the Immunity Project’s research in Africa. Instead of relying on the government only, the Immunity team has found a way for each one of you to make a contribution. They are showing us that we can fund trials through our purchases. That’s certainly what the Immunity Project’s partnership with Gyft enables you to do.

So I encourage you to step up this December and make a gift card purchase that helps us fight AIDS.

Salim S. Abdool Karim is a professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University and the director of CAPRISA. He also is a member of the Immunity Project research team.

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