AIDS vaccine expert encouraged by promising results from clinical trial

Phillip Berman

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

"It's a surprising and important result, 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 B/E component of the vaccine while at Genentech in the 1990s and later cofounded VaxGen, a company focused on clinical development of this vaccine. As head of research and development at VaxGen, he oversaw the first two large-scale clinical trials of AIDSVAX, which failed to show efficacy.

In the new trial, involving 16,000 adult participants in Thailand, AIDSVAX was combined with another experimental vaccine, ALVAC, produced by Sanofi Pasteur, in a "prime-boost" regimen. In this trial, known as RV 144, the vaccination strategy was found to be safe and 31 percent effective in preventing new HIV infections.

"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 four doses of ALVAC as the priming vaccine, followed by two doses of AIDSVAX as the booster vaccine. The nonprofit Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases now holds the rights for AIDSVAX. Berman contributed to the design of the RV 144 trial while he was at VaxGen, but was not directly involved in the conduct of the trial. 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.

"This trial was a heroic effort, and the sponsors were successful in overcoming many obstacles. This result is a testament to their dedication and perseverance," Berman said.

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