AIDS vaccine at 'interesting' juncture

American co-discoverer of HIV teams up with Bar-Ilan researchers.

robert gallo 298.88 (photo credit: Hezi Hojesta [file])
robert gallo 298.88
(photo credit: Hezi Hojesta [file])
Prof. Robert Gallo, the American virologist who 24 years ago co-discovered the AIDS virus, reported during his current visit to Israel that his Baltimore-based Institute of Human Virology was making "interesting steps forward" in developing a broad-based vaccine that has shown itself effective in blocking HIV in monkeys. Gallo, who co-discovered with Pasteur Institute Prof. Luc Montagnier the virus that has killed 30 million around the world and infected 40 million more since the first case was identified in 1981, told The Jerusalem Post that he could not say when the vaccine might be used to protect humans. But he did say that within a year, there would be a Phase I clinical trial, and it would take another four or five years to obtain results. "The monkeys were vaccinated and then infected with the virus. The results were most impressive. We will soon be publishing the results of our research," said Gallo, who in 1996 founded his institute as the the first US center to combine basic research, epidemiology and clinical research to speed the discovery of diagnostics and therapeutics against a wide variety of chronic and deadly viral and immune disorders, especially AIDS. Gallo also announced that he would be collaborating with Bar-Ilan University to develop a substance molecule that is an adjuvant - can stimulate the immune system in a non-specific way for a higher and often much longer-lasting response. "I often come to Israel because it is intellectually stimulating and because of collaboration with Israeli scientists," added the scientist, who was here last year to receive an honorary doctorate in Jerusalem. On Wednesday, Gallo will receive the Dr. Tovi Comet-Walerstein Science Award for 2005 from Bar-Ilan's Safdi Institute for AIDS and Immunology Research (CAIR). The late Comet-Walerstein, an American Jewish medical researcher, died of cancer at the age of 38, and her family established the institute at Bar-Ilan. While previous vaccine research has proven effective only on certain individual strains and only after initial HIV infection, Gallo - who also developed the first HIV blood test - and his team of 40 lab researchers and 160 clinical and administrative staffers have been working on developing a preventative vaccine against all or most of the different strains. So far, the experimental vaccine has proven to be effective for only about four months, but they aim to develop a long-term broad-based vaccine. "Dr. Gallo is one of the foremost scientists in his field and we are proud to be bestowing this honor upon him at this particular time - while the international community is marking World AIDS Day on December 1," said Bar-Ilan University president Moshe Kaveh. CAIR Institute director Benjamin Sredni, the first to develop a method of inducing large numbers of lymphocytes from a single cell, is now collaborating with Gallo on the effect of the Immunomodulator AS101 on the papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer. Gallo said that while AIDS has had a terrible toll on humanity, there have been some positive developments as a result of the disease: It has proven it possible to treat viruses, which was not known before; promoted vaccine research; brought in billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, whose foundation has financed research and drugs for AIDS victims in the developing world; brought the industrial and the developing world together; promoted immunology research and has given a boost to patient advocacy against breast cancer and other diseases. "There were a lot of spinoffs," he said. Gallo also praised US President George W. Bush's administration for deciding a few years ago to allocate a total of $15 billion for giving anti-HIV drugs to nearly a dozen developing nations, mostly in Africa, and distributing them among patients via non-governmental organizations. However, while AIDS is being dealt with more seriously on an international basis today, this awareness and action came too slowly for the developing world, said Gallo, who is going to Nigeria and China in the coming weeks. He knows of no country in the world with no HIV/AIDS cases, but there are some countries that do not report them or do not perform serious testing, such as Indonesia. It may be a mistake for governments to make a big fuss about AIDS only once a year, for World AIDS Day, rather than promote awareness throughout the year, said Gallo, who recognized the fact that the anti-AIDS "cocktail" of drugs has increased apathy. "Some people think that with drugs, getting AIDS is not so terrible. In fact, there is growing resistance of the virus to these drugs, and they cause side effects, not to mention their great expense." The Health Ministry was criticized on Tuesday by a variety of organizations for spending too little on AIDS education. Ministry official Ya'ir Amikam conceded that budgets this year for AIDS information have dropped to only NIS 600,000, and there was no money for TV and radio public service commercials. MK Ilan Leibovich said Tuesday that he would promote a bill to set up a National Council for the War Against AIDS. The Knesset Labor, Social Affairs and Health Committee discussed AIDS and heard that the ministry will run an information campaign in night clubs. By the end of this year, some 295 Israelis are expected to have been diagnosed as HIV carriers, among the 230,000 people who go for a blood test. The Tel Aviv University students association will hold free HIV tests through December 6 around the campus and distribute free condoms, as will the Israel AIDS Task Force.