The following is a guest blog from Dianne Stewart, vice president for Resource Mobilization at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI).
WASHINGTON, D.C. – As Tim Ravenscroft reflected on the lessons he’s learned during decades in the pharmaceutical, biotech and HIV/AIDS fields at a recent Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus briefing on Capitol Hill, two of his statements reverberated in my mind:
First, there is “no doubt” an AIDS vaccine remains the best hope for curbing and eventually ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic
Second, working to develop an AIDS vaccine is “high risk” for small biotechs such as the one Tim runs – Lentigen.
He laid it out like this: the worldwide recession has significantly shrunk venture capital, putting increased pressure on small biotechs with new and innovative ideas to present solid funding models.
So where does that leave us with developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine – easily the most cunning and elusive pathogen scientists have ever come across? Well, according to Ravenscroft, it means a model that pairs grant funding and venture capital in order to spur the innovations needed to solve some of the most intractable barriers HIV has thrown at us.
This is the idea behind the Innovation Fund—a financing mechanism established jointly by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Fund seeks out and supports the application of novel technologies to solving the major problems hampering the development of AIDS vaccines. In this way, the field gets an infusion of new ideas, while biotechs tapped by the Fund get the money, expertise and time they need to refine their technologies and test them in the crucible of AIDS vaccine research and development, which is supported by other major donors, including the U.S. government through USAID. The strength in the Innovation Fund model lies in the ability of the biotech to access the breadth of resources IAVI and its partners are able to provide, such as access to scientific expertise, reagents and clinical infrastructure.
Lentigen is the latest partner in this venture – the firm will be applying its technology to develop novel and potentially more effective vectors, or vehicles for the delivery of HIV genes to the immune system.
We have already seen the Fund’s approach pay off. Last year, researchers at IAVI and collaborating institutions reported in the journal Science the discovery of two new antibodies that neutralize a wide variety of HIV variants at the site on the virus to which they attach, giving researchers important clues about how to design a potentially potent vaccine. As Ravenscroft pointed out, the Fund’s approach is not unique to the HIV/AIDS field. For example, Lentigen also is working with the global health organization PATH on using Lentigen’s technology to overcome the limitations of traditional egg-based pandemic influenza vaccines.
“This is a different way of working,” IAVI CEO Seth Berkley said at the briefing. “Biotech companies in many ways have become the engine of innovation … and we’re working to connect them to research in the developing world.”
Last year’s antibody discoveries, coupled with the results of a clinical trial in Thailand that established for the first time that an AIDS vaccine is possible, has galvanized the field and generated considerable optimism about the prospects of developing a safe and effective AIDS vaccine. But as we approach World AIDS Vaccine Day on May 18, we must remember that we will not only need all hands on deck to defeat the virus, we’ll also need to make sure all those hands are working together—no matter which country or sector they happen to reach out from.