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International Aids Vaccine Initiative Announces First Research Awards

December 26, 1997

NEW YORK, N.Y., December 26, 1997 — The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) announced its first three awards for research projects to accelerate the development of candidate HIV vaccines. IAVI, a global consortium founded in 1996 to ensure development of safe, effective, accessible, preventive HIV vaccines for use throughout the world, awarded funding to the Macfarlane Burnet Centre in Australia, the New England Regional Primate Research Center/Harvard Medical School, and a collaboration between Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Dana Farber Cancer Research Institute. IAVI is also actively negotiating private sector product development awards with vaccine/biotechnology companies to create public/private collaborations to advance vaccine product development, a critical step in producing HIV vaccines.

According to IAVI Scientific Director Margaret Johnston, Ph.D., "These awards address IAVI's scientific priority: filling critical gaps in HIV vaccine development by supporting promising concepts that have not yet been developed by the private sector." The awards also reflect IAVI's commitment to ensure evaluation of vaccine candidates against the HIV subtypes found in the developing world, where 90 percent of new HIV infections are occurring.

IAVI President Seth Berkley, M.D., noted that "despite scientific consensus that developing an HIV vaccine is feasible, no candidate has ever been tested for efficacy since the human immunodeficiency virus was identified in 1983. The awards that IAVI makes today will help develop HIV vaccines and address this overwhelming need."

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative seeks to accelerate vaccine development by directly funding promising areas of applied research. IAVI also works with government groups, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, regulatory agencies, and others to address the complex political and market issues that have hampered the progress of suitable vaccines, and to educate decision-makers and the public about the need to develop HIV vaccines.

IAVI's major funding partners are the U.S.-based Rockefeller and Sloan Foundations, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Until There's A Cure Foundation, and the World Bank. Other IAVI partners include the Mérieux Foundation of France, the National AIDS Trust of England, and the National AIDS Convention of South Africa.

Ronald Desrosiers, Ph.D., of the New England Regional Primate Research Center and the Harvard Medical School, was awarded $32,934 over six months to design a large-scale, long-term study of the safety of live-attenuated SIV vaccine in monkeys. (SIV is the simian immunodeficiency virus, which causes an AIDS-like illness in monkeys.) Live-attenuated vaccines, made from a weakened form of living virus, have been effective against many other diseases such as measles and mumps, and have been shown to protect monkeys from SIV infection. Moreover, some humans who appear to have become accidentally infected with weakened forms of HIV through transfusion have remained healthy with no signs of disease for more than 15 years. Dr. Desrosiers’ study will seek to provide more extensive data on the safety of this vaccine approach.

Professor John Mills, at the Macfarlane Burnet Centre in Australia, will use IAVI’s award (up to $415,500 over the next two years) to study a DNA-based, live-attenuated vaccine in animal models. This effort will manufacture a weakened SIV DNA that causes infection but not disease, and evaluate its ability to protect monkeys against "wild type" SIV that does cause disease. Vaccine made from pro-viral DNA may be better than live-virus vaccines for use in developing countries, since it would likely be less costly to manufacture and transport. An Australian biotechnology company, AMRAD, has been included as a party to this project.

Norman Letvin, M.D., of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Joseph Sodroski, M.D., of Dana Farber Cancer Research Institute were awarded up to $494,108 for a two-year joint project to develop hybrid viruses (SIV with an HIV subtypes E and C envelope coating). Such hybrids will be useful in testing whether vaccine candidates might protect against infection by HIV subtypes E and C, which are prevalent in Asia and parts of Africa. Vaccines that elicit broadly protective responses are critically important to developing countries in which multiple subtypes of HIV predominate.

The award winners were recommended by IAVI's Scientific Advisory Committee, comprising 12 vaccinologists, HIV researchers, and other scientists from nine nations. The Committee is chaired by Jaap Goudsmit, M.D., of the University of Amsterdam.