Leading the search for an AIDS vaccine

June 19, 2012

Many scientists have been pessimistic about finding a vaccine to prevent the HIV infection that causes AIDS, but not Dr. Genoveffa Franchini.

As a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Franchini played a pivotal role in the development of a vaccine that was tested on 16,000 high-risk patients in Thailand, and proved to be 31 percent effective in preventing the HIV infection.

The trial, conducted with major funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), represented the first time a vaccine demonstrated the ability to prevent the HIV infection. Further research and testing on primates are now underway to better understand how the vaccine works and to find ways to improve its effectiveness. Results from some of the ongoing studies are expected this fall.

“Many people didn’t think that it was possible to make a vaccine for HIV,” Franchini said. “It could take a very long time, but this trial was a hint of success.”

Franchini, born and educated in Italy, came to the United States in 1979 to train at the NIH under biomedical researcher Dr. Robert Gallo, and to work on finding a vaccine for leukemia.


Genoveffa Franchini, senior investigator, National Cancer Institute. (National Cancer Institute)

In 1981, the HIV virus was isolated in Gallo’s laboratory, and that set Franchini on a path of developing a vaccine to halt a disease that now has killed more than 25 million people worldwide. It is also estimated that approximately 33.4 million people around the world are living with HIV/AIDS.

Franchini said the six-year clinical trial in Thailand, which began in 2003 and concluded in 2009, was controversial. A number of previous vaccine trials had proven unsuccessful, and 22 scientists signed a letter published in Science magazine in 2004, saying the vaccine approach developed by Franchini and colleagues would not work. They argued that the clinical trial, which ended up costing more than $100 million, would be too expensive and the money should be spent on basic research.

Franchini, joined by many colleagues in the scientific and medical communities, pushed back against the criticism and garnered support to move ahead with the study that was sponsored by the U.S. Army in collaboration with NIH, the drugmaker Sanofi and the nonprofit Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Vanessa Hirsch, a colleague at NIH, said Franchini has had a “big impact.”

“She’s been in this field, focusing on vaccines since the beginning,” said Hirsch. “With her help, there’s finally an HIV vaccine that has shown a glimmer of hope.”

Another NIH colleague, Dr. Gene Shearer, said Franchini’s work has been “quite remarkable” and has helped lead to new discoveries and confirm the research by others.

“She not only has ideas, but is able to carry them out,” said Shearer.

Franchini said working at NIH has provided a wonderful opportunity to engage in important research and follow the science wherever it leads. “Just having a scientific interest doesn’t go anywhere without the political will,” she said. “It requires a lot of money. You need someone to back you.”

She also said NIH has a very “egalitarian culture” and has a high level of respect for women.

“I would not have had the same career in Italy,” she said.

Franchini has taken full advantage of the opportunities and is trying to help others as well. She has served as a mentor to other women in science and is determined to make a difference in people’s lives. To that end, she has a postcard on her office door providing insight into her determination. It reads, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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