Hutch News Stories

Vaccine volunteers hold hope for halting AIDS

HIV-negative volunteers like Wendy Hilliker enable researchers to test vaccines against life-threatening virus
Wendy Hilliker (right) talks with research technician Michele Brown
Wendy Hilliker (right) talks with research technician Michele Brown. Hilliker oversees administrative support in the center's Program in Immunology. Photo by Todd McNaught

When Wendy Hilliker saw a newspaper ad to recruit volunteers for an HIV vaccine study, she didn't have to think twice about signing up.

However, explaining why she jumped at the opportunity requires a little more head scratching. "It's the most basic question, but it's also the toughest to answer," said Hilliker, an administrative manager in the Clinical Research Division. "It's a combination of reasons, but it boils down to wanting to make a difference."

Hilliker is one of thousands of HIV-negative volunteers nationwide who have participated in ongoing studies sponsored by the HIV Vaccine Trials Network.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the network operates 11 vaccine units across the country — including the Seattle HIV Vaccine Trials Unit directed by the center's Dr. Julie McElrath — that are testing various potential vaccines against the life-threatening virus. Participants receive either a vaccine or a placebo. Afterward, researchers evaluate whether the vaccine was able to produce an immune response that could potentially provide protection from HIV. The coordinating center for all of the trials is located at Fred Hutchinson.

Confidence in the process

As Hilliker pondered her reasons for enrolling, she said the center's involvement made a big impression. "I grew up in Seattle and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Fred Hutchinson," she said, recalling the care a high school friend received while undergoing a bone-marrow transplant. "The fact that the center is running the trial network gave me confidence."

Although Hilliker knew from talking with study staff there was no risk of actually contracting the virus from the vaccine, her biggest concern was that her friends and family wouldn't share that understanding. "The study coordinator said I might encounter attitudes and prejudices, but that didn't happen," she said. "I never felt rejected and I never felt my motives were questioned."

Hilliker, a 35-year-old Seattle resident, currently oversees administrative support for investigators in the center's Program in Immunology. However, when she signed up for the vaccine trial, she worked at the Group Health Center for Health Studies.

Hilliker was enrolled in the study between February 2001 and August 2002, receiving four injections and undergoing periodic checkups and blood/urine draws at the clinic. Hilliker, who now knows she received the vaccine, not the placebo, said she never once felt any ill effects. Participating in a vaccine trial wasn't the first time Hilliker had reached out to address the problem of HIV. As a massage therapist, she volunteered to provide free massages to AIDS patients. "Providing touch for people who may not get enough of it is tremendously important," she said. "I really wanted to support the caring for AIDS patients — it's as simple as that."

It's also deeper than that. "It's hard to articulate, but helping people in the final stages of life has always been an interest of mine," Hilliker said. "My mom used to work in nursing homes and I remember visiting with the residents at a young age. That may have been the inspiration."

Currently a hospice volunteer, Hilliker finds it rewarding to provide comfort to people who are facing the end of their lives. "In our society, we will go to great lengths to preserve life and sometimes death is seen as a failure ... serving someone during this time is a profound experience," she said.

A worthy road

Hilliker knows HIV vaccine research remains in the early stages and scientists have a long road to travel before they can defeat the disease. "Despite important advances, they've been foiled time and again," she said. "HIV is a virus that commands respect."

Even so, she regards her participation in a vaccine trial as a valuable contribution and a positive experience. "The study staff was very supportive and responsive and understanding," she said. "They answered all of my questions. I thought everything was very well explained. If I were eligible for other studies, I would volunteer again, absolutely," Hilliker said.

Volunteers make the difference

Experts believe that a vaccine may be the only hope to halt the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has already taken about 29 million lives. At the Seattle HIV Vaccine Trials Unit, directed by Dr. Julie McElrath of the Clinical Research Division, about 60 local individuals currently participate in active vaccine trials.

"Our studies really can't happen without our volunteers," said Gary Chovnick, the unit's community education manager. "If we are ever going to make an impact on this epidemic, it will be because of the efforts of these volunteers."

Making that impact is what drives McElrath in her quest for an effective vaccine. "I really want that vaccine," she said. "I really desperately want that vaccine. I want it for my child. I want it for my grandchildren and I want it for the world."

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