The uphill battle against HIV

An editorial this week in The Washington Post, “HIV/AIDS:
The Incurable Epidemic
,” cites disappointing results from two recent
studies. A separate press release from Duke University cites a “major roadblock”
in another
HIV study
. Simply put, the road to curing this virus continues to be an
uphill slog.

The first study the editorial mentions, the RV144 trial, was
hailed as a
back in September because it was the first trial ever to show
even “modest” protection against HIV infection. Many thought the results,
obtained from a set of Thai patients, suggested that a legitimate AIDS vaccine
would soon be in the making. Further analysis, however, showed that the results
were less dramatic than originally thought and may even be explained by a
statistical fluke. Though researchers maintain that the results are still important,
the new caveats strike a resounding blow against the possibility of a
commercial vaccine in the near future.

The results of the other study, which looked at a gel
designed to prevent HIV transmission to women, were released on Monday. Although
the compound, which was tested in more than 9,000 women in South Africa,
Uganda, Zambia, and Tanzania over four years, had shown early successes in the
lab and in small trials, it was a complete failure on a larger scale.

The Duke University researchers, meanwhile, were studying
mice to find the best way to make an AIDS vaccine. Their findings reveal that
the immune system, instead of being “blind” to HIV, can indeed produce cells
with the potential to combat the virus. However, these cells are killed off
before they can fully mature; apparently, they are viewed by the body as a
potential threat.

Just because these studies produced lackluster results,
however, doesn’t indicate that they aren’t meaningful. Even a failed experiment
can help guide future research; it tells scientists they need to try something
else. If they can take even a little information from the misstep to create a
better next experiment, then what appeared initially to be disappointment can
ultimately be viewed as a success.

Just look at the similarity between two statements on the
future of HIV research. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of
Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said to the Post about the flawed study from September: “It does now form the
basis for … the development of future HIV vaccines.”

The senior author of the Duke study, Barton Haynes,
meanwhile, said the following: “This represents a new insight into the way HIV
effectively evades … and may offer new directions for vaccine design.”

There is hope that one day, one of these failures will lead
to a major breakthrough. In the meantime, we already have developed proven methods for preventing HIV. With enough awareness, the number of new infections
can be drastically reduced.

—Andrew Kahn

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