'Breakthrough in hunt for HIV vaccine!'' read the headlines earlier this month. It makes for an exciting time in AIDS research. Ever since the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was identified as the cause of AIDS over 30 years ago the world has thrown itself into a battle to beat AIDS. There have been some successes along the way, much courage and always hope. AIDS is no longer a death sentence for those who can get the drug cocktails and more people, especially in developing countries, are.
All this is good news. 'The big disease with a little name' is less of a mystery than it was when Prince sang about it back in the 1980s. But positive news detracts from the menacing reality. AIDS remains a scary word. The AIDS pandemic is still spreading and we need to remember there is still no vaccine and no cure for the big disease.
It is a somber thought to think that on World Aid's Day this year 2,500 people will be newly infected with HIV. They will join the other 34 million people around the world who are HIV+ and live a life of uncertainty, side effects and, in many regions, experience exclusion and stigma. Something that feels dreadfully tragic to me about AIDS is the thought that more than a quarter of a million children each year are infected with the AIDS virus before they are even born.
All this explains why we get so excited every time scientists hail a breakthrough like this. In fact, we've got excited more than 85 times over the past few years as we are repeatedly promised that developments in monkeys could mean that the elusive quest for an AIDS vaccine is over. But each promise is followed by disappointment and we've been let down as many times as our hopes have risen. Not one of these potential AIDS vaccines that work in monkeys has proven to be successful in human clinical trials.
This AIDS virus is not one of the world's most serious health challenges for nothing. It's a sophisticated virus: dodging attack from drugs by constantly changing its shape and taking out cells of the immune system- the very system that is meant to attack it and defend the body against such sinister infections. But modern science is more sophisticated, so why don't we have a vaccine?
Does it make me sound too spoddy if I suggest that part of the reason we are not finding effective vaccines for humans could be down to research conducted on the wrong species? A species that is not normally infected with HIV and does not develop AIDS symptoms. Is it too off the wall to propose that the reason might stem from conducting studies on a virus that differs from the genetics of HIV by as much as 50% - the simian immune virus? Perhaps exploring an entirely different disease pathway altogether plays a part. Just a few barmy suggestions.
As monkeys are injected up to their eyeballs what can be so 'essential' about their use as AIDS models when their success rate has been a consistently bounteous 0%? Professor Bob Edelman said, "If you want your vaccine to work in a human, you'd better get it into a human, quickly. Otherwise you're going to spend a lot of time with animal studies and never be able to predict what it will do in people." The Prof has got a point.
Will we ever find a vaccine to AIDS? It's a yes no answer. No, if we continue researching on the wrong virus in another species. But yes, an effective preventative vaccine is scientifically feasible, but only if we study the actual virus that causes the human disease and use HIV relevant models.
Back in the 1980s world leaders flexed their muscles with grand gestures into space; finances hurt; people feared world war and the big disease with a little name was gripping the globe. Little has changed and much remains as relevant today as it was back then. But one thing that has changed is the option for scientific methods of disease research. The big disease with a little name needn't be quite so big if we gave up monkey methods of research that are already proven to fail.