"They allowed me to be curious and were willing to spend extra time to answer my questions. They made me feel like part of the process."
As a volunteer for the former Chicken Soup Brigade, Gary Tolman provided support for AIDS patients. He also watched as powerful new drugs helped people with HIV live longer, fuller lives. But he wanted to do more. When he read a newspaper ad recruiting volunteers for an HIV vaccine trial, he saw it as an opportunity to get involved in finding what he called "a more proactive solution" to HIV/AIDS.
"I thought to myself, 'This is something I can do to help,'" he said.
Tolman participated in a two-year study conducted by the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Funded by the National Institutes of Health and coordinated by Fred Hutch, the network operates 12 clinics across the country — including the Seattle HIV Vaccine Trials Unit — that test potential vaccines against the life-threatening virus. Participants, who are HIV-negative, receive either a vaccine or a placebo. Researchers then evaluate the vaccine's ability to produce an immune response that could potentially provide protection from HIV.
Tolman understood from his days as a biology major that being exposed to the vaccine — he had six injections in all — would not give him the virus. Over the course of his participation, the study staff continually impressed Tolman. "They went out of their way to make sure it was comfortable," he said. "They allowed me to be curious and were willing to spend extra time to answer my questions. They made me feel like part of the process."
Slow but steady progress continues in vaccine research, but Tolman knows that when scientists do find effective vaccines, he will be proud that he made a contribution. "I'll feel pretty cool that I helped a little bit — but just a little bit," he said. "It'll be enough to simply know they have a vaccine."
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