Around the globe, there are approximately 35 million people living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the dangerous virus that has caused the AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) pandemic since its discovery in the 1980s. However, one in 300 of those infected have the ability to keep the virus from fully infecting their immune system, which prevents them from developing AIDS. In the scientific community, these people are called “HIV controllers,” and their control of viral infection has prompted an ambitious business venture that is could change the course of vaccine development.
The Immunity Project is a non-profit organization led by CEO Dr. Reid Rubsamen, whose aim is to crowdfund the development of an HIV vaccine with the intention of distributing the vaccine for free. That’s right…a free HIV vaccine.
Using advanced machine learning technology, analysis of blood samples from HIV controllers revealed specific targets on the surface of the virus that activate immune responses. Rubsamen and his team have developed a vaccine prototype that imitates this specific targeting of HIV, an approach differing from current vaccine models. The vaccine does not contain any live, killed, or modified virus, will not need refrigeration, and will be offered as a portable nasal inhaler, allowing for easy distribution and administration to countries all around the world.
While a valiant effort to approach vaccine development in a novel way, there are great risks in this approach. Understanding of viral disease and immunology is of great importance to the scientific community, and hours of work toward peer-reviewed research could be undermined by either the success or failure of this project. It is also quite common for vaccine candidates to reach Phase I clinical trials and then prove to be ineffective. What happens if that is the case for this vaccine? Finally, while The Immunity Project maintains that they will remain non-profit and make sure the vaccine stays free, what happens if the company decides to sell out in the future?
Nevertheless, the crowdsourcing campaign is well on its way toward reaching its goal of $462,000. Funding will be used to conduct the final laboratory experiment to confirm efficacy using human blood samples. Moving forward, success will lead to further crowdsourced campaigns to raise the $25 million needed for FDA approval to begin Phase I clinical trials in the United States . The same will be expected for Phase II trials, as well as for Phase III and IV studies. The Immunity Project plans to begin Phase 1 trials as soon as this fall, meaning a free, easy to use vaccine could be the next step toward ending the global HIV/AIDS pandemic once and for all.
//Image by WHO, via the PATH global health Flickr page.