AIDS vaccine expert encouraged by promising results from clinical trial

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Friday, September 25, 2009

By Tim Stephens (831) 459-2495; stephens@ucsc.edu

Phillip Berman

When promising results from a large clinical trial of an AIDS vaccine regimen were announced on Thursday, it was encouraging news to the inventor of one of the vaccines used in the trial.

"It's a surprising and important study, the first one to suggest that an AIDS vaccine really is possible; it's no longer just a theoretical idea," said Phillip Berman, the Baskin Professor and chair of biomolecular engineering in the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at UCSC.

Berman invented the Aidsvax vaccine at Genentech in the 1990s and later, as head of research and development at VaxGen, oversaw disappointing clinical trials in which the vaccine by itself appeared to be ineffective. In the new trial, involving 16,000 adult participants in Thailand, Aidsvax was combined with another experimental vaccine in a "prime-boost" regimen. This regimen, known as RV 144, was found to be safe and 31 percent effective in preventing HIV infection.

"This combined approach was designed to stimulate both cellular and antibody-based responses, whereas previous vaccines stimulated just one or the other," Berman said.

The RV 144 regimen involved a vaccine developed by Sanofi Pasteur (Alvac) as the priming vaccine, followed by Aidsvax as the booster vaccine. The nonprofit Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases now holds the rights for Aidsvax. Berman was not directly involved in the RV 144 trial, so he did not know about the results until they were publicly announced by the partners that ran the trial, which include the U.S. Army, the National Institutes of Health, and the Thai Ministry of Public Health.

Earlier this year, Berman received a $3.5 million grant from NIH to fund his ongoing AIDS vaccine research efforts.