AIDS vaccine trial doomed to fail, scientists warn

U.S. to continue research under way in Thailand

January 16, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Army and the National Institutes of Health are continuing with a $119 million AIDS vaccine experiment, even though some of the country's best-known HIV researchers say it likely won't work.

Since September, about 500 high-risk individuals in Thailand have agreed to take a vaccine designed to stimulate the human immune system to attack the AIDS virus on two fronts. Researchers plan to give the shot to 15,500 more people over the next two years.

There appears to be no question whether the vaccine is safe. But differences over whether enough evidence it might work exists to justify a large-scale trial appeared yesterday to be headed for a noisy scientific fight.

Critics describe the trial as a shot in the dark. Sponsors said they were writing a rebuttal to that criticism.

The critics - including AIDS vaccine researcher Mark Feinberg of Emory University and Dr. Robert C. Gallo, a co-discoverer of the AIDS virus who heads the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore - wrote in today's issue of the journal Science that there is little evidence to expect the experimental vaccine will work.

"Society expects the scientific community to develop a vaccine to counter the AIDS pandemic, but there are adverse consequences to conducting large-scale trials of inadequate HIV-1 vaccines," the researchers said.

Feinberg said in an interview yesterday that research should build on previous discovery. But the Army-NIH trial is not based on previous findings indicating that it might work, he said.

In fact, earlier experiments suggest it will not, he said.

The trial would compare the combined effects of two different vaccine approaches, neither of which has been particularly effective in previous experiments.

The hope appears to be that the two mechanisms working together will have a greater effect than they would have working separately.

"The scientific hypothesis being examined in the study is whether a vaccine combination that induces both arms of the human immune system, cell- mediated immunity and antibody-mediated immunity, will provide protection against HIV," the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease said in a written response to the Science commentary.

NIAID, headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, is the NIH arm that is cooperating with the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command in the trial.

The NIAID statement said a rebuttal to the article was being written "for publication in Science in the near future."

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