AIDS Failure at Merck Elevates Burton Vaccine for 2 Million
--John Lauerman, Bloomberg News
June 20,2008 (Bloomberg) -- On a sunny March afternoon, Dennis Burton draws his office blinds, blocking a view of the 10th tee at La Jolla's Torrey Pines Golf Course and Southern California's Pacific Surf.[Nice digs! --Editor]
Instead, he turns to a handful of twisted, translucent yellow models, each smaller than a bar of soap. This set of what look like dog chew toys holds the key to Burton's mission to halt the spread of AIDS, the pandemic that has killed 25 million people in a quarter century and threatens 33 million more today.
``Six or seven years ago, I decided that this was what I would be doing the rest of my life,'' says Burton, 56, seated at a coffee table in his office at the Scripps Research Institute, the world's largest private, nonprofit research organization.
Betting on a vaccine puts Burton at the center of hope -- and controversy -- in research to counter AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. That role has intensified since last September, when pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. suddenly terminated a vaccine trial after inoculated volunteers appeared more likely to contract HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, than those who got placebo injections. [In other words, the "vaccine" spead HIV -- great job, boys! --Editor]
`Stick With It'
Now, even after spending billions of dollars since 1984, [we can continue spending billions of dollars after 1984! --Editor] when U.S. and French researchers announced the discovery of HIV, scientists say it may be at least 10 more years before another such promising vaccine candidate emerges from testing. [Every 10 years they say it will take another 10 years!--Editor]
Burton, who has toiled out of the headlines, is trying to shorten the time by understanding the immune response to HIV. He then plans to attack the virus with proteins he's studied from the rare patients who can fight off HIV, neutralizing the devastating effects.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's richest charity, is spending more than $160 million on similar efforts in addition to bankrolling some of Burton's major funders. The U.S. government's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases -- along with private donors -- is also backing Burton's approach as the best way to stop AIDS dead in its tracks.
``We know the overall strategy works and that this is just a very difficult case,'' Burton says. ``Science works very well, and we should just stick with it. It always pays off.'' [It does pay off for scientists--Editor]
Where's the Payoff?
Not everyone sees the payoff. Pfizer Inc., the world's biggest drugmaker, and other companies with billion-dollar budgets aren't racing to create HIV vaccines.
Merck would be lucky to get a fraction of that for an HIV vaccine in southern Africa, where two-thirds of the world's AIDS patients live. The World Bank estimates the average annual income in Zimbabwe is about $340.
``We have to admit to ourselves that we don't know how to make an HIV vaccine right now,'' Beatrice Hahn, an AIDS researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in a March meeting in Washington.
These people are clueless!