Science Speaks live-blogged from AIDS Vaccine 2013 from Oct. 7 to Oct 10, in Barcelona, Spain. With the theme “Progress, Partnership and Perserverance,” the last event for the foreseeable future to focus exclusively on HIV/AIDS vaccine development, aired promising developments while looking ahead at new approaches, and the uncertainties of politics.
Could the Cytomegalovirus be “just right” for ending AIDS? It has been among the most devastating opportunistic infections to beset AIDS patients, causing blindness, cognitive collapse, colitis, death. But well before AIDS showed what it could do, the virus had been with us, in our midst, “since were were trod on by dinosaurs,” Dr. Louis Picker said. Co-evolving with us, it may be the virus that could poke the immune system just enough to be part of an effective AIDS vaccine, prompting an immune response that is not so high as to exhaust its effect, not so low as to make no difference at all. For that reason Picker, associate director of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and senior scientist in the pathobiology and immunology division of the Oregon National Primate and Research Center, said the virus could be “the Goldilocks vector,” He has seen promising results in monkeys, and is working on a way to translate those results to the next level. Still, he remembers: “The trick to making a vaccine is to be humble and realize that viruses are smarter than we are.”
Getting with the times . . . When she gets around a bunch of fellow vaccine researchers, Galit Alter, one of the youngest scientific conference chairs ever when she co-hosted last year’s AIDS Vaccine Conference in Boston, gets as excited as a six-year-old at party with a pony and a bounce house. By the end of this last conference she had lost her voice from animated discussions of neutralizing antibodies, toxic t-cells, and a lot of other stuff that you don’t get to talk about every day, in the outside world. She noted that even as it zoomed in on the most promising approaches, the field of AIDS vaccine research is broadening. While the subject of an AIDS cure used to be reserved for other conferences, “this conference had cure all throughout,” she said. Still, when asked how she feels about leaving the last solely focused vaccine conference, she didn’t pause. “Are you kidding? I’m so sad,” she said. She quickly added that she can get excited about the next, (HIV Research for Prevention 2014: AIDS Vaccine, Microbicide and ARV-based Prevention Science — R4P )conference next October. “I know it’s going to be great, with microbicides . . .” she said, adding with some wistfulness, “We got used to having this venue where we could really debate vaccines.” But she said, everyone has to get over their individual needs for the greater good: “We’ve got to get with the times.”
The view from Zambia: “I spent the whole of last week in Barcelona attending the 13th (and last) AIDS Vaccine Conference,” Zambian physician, AIDS response advocate and journalist Mannasseh Phiri wrote, upon his return. While listening to scientists speak “familiarly of ‘low entropy viral epitopes’ and broadly neutralising VRCO1-class antibodies . . .” he thought of his six grandchildren, who range in age from a year and a half to 18 years old, who he feels are owed a world free of AIDS. At the current stage of development for the most promising answers, the youngest will be 11, the eldest 28 if the very best case scenario of an effective vaccine came to pass, he realized. At the same time Dr. Phiri, who comes from a country with a peaceful, if complicated, and short political history of its own, noted that “even all the highest high level science of the human immune system was not itself immune to the science of the inner workings of politics and governments – the complex innate and cognate immune systems that run our world.” He is referring to the U.S. government shutdown that prevented a long list of presenters, speakers and attendees from visiting a conference where they have made significant contributions, that is a forum for feedback on their lives’ work, and where scientists network and learn from each other. If you are curious how the shutdown looks to a concerned global citizen halfway around the world, let alone how crucial its outcomes are, read this.