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Why a small group of doctors & techies believe they can create an HIV vaccine

Nicole Goodkind
Nicole Goodkind
Daily Ticker

Pharmaceutical companies have been attempting to control the AIDS/HIV crisis since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recognized the syndrome in 1982. While the medicines available now are quite effective at curbing the progression of the autoimmune disease from HIV into AIDS and treating symptoms, there are still an estimated 34 million people in the world infected with HIV.

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The cocktail of prescription drugs and frequent doctor’s visits make fighting HIV and AIDS an incredibly expensive task. In the U.S. monthly treatment for HIV/AIDS ranges between $2,000 and $5,000 with lifetime treatment costs estimated at more than half a million dollars. It's a huge burden considering that 97% of people living with HIV reside in low-income and middle class countries (particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa). In the U.S. those living in poor communities are 2.5% as likely to be infected with HIV as those who live in wealthy areas.

The Immunity Project wants to change all of that. The group of doctors and tech gurus think it may have created a vaccine to prevent HIV, and they intend on vaccinating anyone who wants it—for free.

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The group believes that by examining the HIV life cycle in controllers (the 1-in-300 people who are born with a natural immunity to the disease) they can target the virus precisely where it’s at its weakest (read more on that here). Microsoft and Y Combinator have backed the immunity Project and early tests on animals have been successful. The team is now raising money for their next steps through crowdfunding, a novel idea and potential first for a vaccine.

Why is this team with limited resources attempting to achieve what pharmaceutical companies have failed at so many times before?

“The agenda for Immunity Project is set forth very clearly: to take this HIV vaccine candidate that we have forward and assuming success to give it away to the world for free,” says Naveen Jain, co-founder and chief marketing officer. “Most of the people who need a vaccine like this could never afford to pay for it. When you have your large multinational corporation with a necessity to provide a return on investment to your shareholders and board of directors it becomes very challenging [to provide the vaccine for free].”

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The Immunity Project also hopes to inspire other research projects to attempt to solve the world’s largest health problems without the help of big pharmaceutical companies. So is this a new model for drug development in America?

“Our hope is that this becomes a model that pharmaceutical companies and mission-driven researchers all over the world look at as a possibility for their work because at the end of the day the goal is to focus on global health,” says Jain. “Whether people are targeting cancer or some other health-related topic or non-health related topic we want them to focus on the end goal and not the micro steps it takes to get there.”

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