World AIDS Day: A time of hope, remembrance and determination to find a vaccine

Dec. 1 marks the 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day
Sterling Williams hammers commemorative markers
Sterling Williams hammers in markers representing the 3,423 people in Shelby County, Tenn., who have died from AIDS. Kyle Kurlick / AP

In the 25 years since the first World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, 1988, hopes for quelling the AIDS pandemic have been raised and too often dashed. But the scientists at the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN), based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, are determined in their quest to find an effective HIV vaccine.

“On this World AIDS Day, we remember that despite huge advances in treatment, HIV is still spreading throughout both the United States and the world. We face the future with hope and determination that our scientists will find a vaccine that will end HIV,” said Dr. Larry Corey, president and director of the Hutch.

Corey, who began researching HIV and AIDS in the '80s, is an internationally renowned expert in virology, immunology, and vaccine development. He is the principal investigator of the National Institutes of Health-supported HVTN, based at the Hutch.

While anti-retroviral therapies have transformed HIV infection from automatic death sentence to manageable disease, they remain out of reach for many. More than 600,000 Americans infected with HIV have died since the AIDS pandemic began, and more than 1.1 million currently live with HIV. But these numbers are dwarfed by the 35 million with HIV across the globe.

The mission of the Hutch is the elimination of cancer and related diseases as a cause of human suffering and death. Those with HIV can be several thousand times more likely to develop various types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

This year, the theme of World AIDS Day is “Shared Responsibility: Strengthening Results for an AIDS-Free Generation”—a mission that HVTN researchers take seriously.

In October, the HVTN, which is partnering with the South African Medical Research Council, opened a state-of-the-art laboratory in Cape Town, South Africa, where two new vaccine trials will launch in 2015. In South Africa alone, HIV infects more than 5 million people – roughly 10 percent of the population, a vivid reminder of the desperate need for an effective vaccine, said Dr. James Kublin, executive director of HVTN’s Core division.

HVTN’s Cape Town trials will involve more than 12,000 participants and will build on the success of a recent Thai trial—the only HIV vaccine trial that has demonstrated any protective effect in people. Those participants in the new trials are collaborating in the next step toward what Kublin called “the ultimate goal”—an HIV-preventive vaccine effective world-wide.

“I’ve been involved in medicine and specifically HIV for my entire professional life, and I’ve never seen an endeavor like this – there is a huge community of people who are 100 percent committed to discovering a vaccine,” said Kublin. “It might not happen immediately, but it’s within our grasp.”

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