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Dr. Phillip Berman of Brisbane's biotech firm Vaxgen announced the disappointing results from the most important study to date of an AIDS vaccine. Nevertheless, he said, "Well we think these results are very significant. It's the first time anyone's had any numbers to show that a candidate vaccine could provide protection in humans."
Simply put, the vaccine worked no better than a placebo.
Dr. Tom Coates, director of the UCSF AIDS Research Institute says, "If you look at the entire results, and compare those who got vaccine versus those who got placebo, the results are dead on, that the infection rates are virtually the same in the two groups."
Dr. Coates considers the news a setback, not a complete failure. Here's why: In the study, minorities-- blacks and Asians-- responded favorably, with 66% fewer infections. But the numbers of those tested are small and could be unreliable.
"It could be a statistical fluke, it could be a real finding. There's no way to know. It's an intriguing finding. Would we, on the basis of that finding, encourage the FDA to license the drugs for African-Americans? No."
He says the Vaxgen study has helped us learn a lot about how to do these studies, that different subgroups need to be well represented, and that it's safe for volunteers.
"There was a concern that people in the vaccine, in the trial, would increase their risk behavior, and in fact they didn't, they lowered their risk behavior. Went from about 45% of the sample reporting unprotected intercourse with an HIV positive partner, down to 30% over the period of the study."
He says the next step is a more thorough review of the data. Despite the setback, he remains hopeful.
"We have to think that our science can make a dent in this problem. It may not be as quick as we want or exactly the way that we want, but I believe that we can make advances against this virus."
The bottom line is that the research -- while not the cure hoped for -- is a step forward. And every scientific study moves closer to a possible vaccine.