Scientist Gets $15 Million Grant To Develop Potential AIDS Vaccine

Robert Gallo co-discovered HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Robert Gallo co-discovered HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. (Institute Of Human Virology, Uni - Institute Of Human Virology, Uni)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The University of Maryland scientist who co-discovered the virus that causes AIDS is receiving a $15 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a potential vaccine, state officials announced yesterday.

Dr. Robert Gallo said he expects the five-year grant to expand his research on a possible vaccine that he has tested successfully on monkeys.

"We have a vaccine candidate that we think is extremely interesting and unique in its properties," Gallo said yesterday at a news conference in Annapolis. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine, said he hopes to begin clinical trials next year.

Gallo and French researcher Luc Montagnier were the first to identify that the human immunodeficiency virus causes AIDS.

But more than two decades after the epidemic began, the search for a vaccine continues, presenting one of the toughest challenges in medicine.

HIV mutates rapidly and integrates into a patient's genetic material, making it a moving target that infects the immune cells the body uses to fight an attack. Dozens of trials are underway, but attempts to develop a vaccine have failed because researchers have not been able to stop the strains of the virus from reappearing.

Drugs in an infected person's bloodstream can kill the virus, but they can't touch it in the body's immune cells.

More than 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981, and about 40 million are living with HIV, most of them in Africa. Yesterday, Gallo compared the death toll from AIDS to the toll from the tsunami that crashed onto an Indonesian island in 2005.

"Two hundred thousand people died in the tsunami," he said. "Every month, 250,000 people die of AIDS."

The grant, announced by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), is part of the Gates Foundation's Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery, an international network of researchers hunting for a vaccine. The effort started last year with $287 million in grants.

Gallo said he has been working in earnest on a potential vaccine for about four years. The approach of his team of researchers is to intercept the virus before it can enter the body's cells and attack the immune system's response to an infection. That would give the antibodies the best chance of working against the various strains of HIV, he said.

He also said the vaccine has the potential to eliminate the virus in already infected cells.

Gallo has a public-private partnership with Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and Profectus BioSciences, a spinoff of the Institute of Human Virology, which would help fund clinical trials and manufacture the vaccine.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company