Can this man cure AIDS?
Dr. Sudhir Paul and a group of private funders are banking on a revolutionary approach to creating a vaccine for HIV.
Wed, Dec 02 2009 at 12:43 PM
Photo: Getty Images
Typically, AIDS research is funded by scientific groups like the National Institutes of Health and other research organizations, but one man’s quest to use a revolutionary approach to create a vaccine against the disease is finding funding in those most unlikely of places – from nonscientists, according to a recent piece in Newsweek.
At first, Dr. Sudhir Paul’s HIV vaccine looks like all the rest of the vaccine candidates that have come out over the past 20 years. It uses the “neutralizing antibody” strategy, which basically means that it makes the body’s B cells make proteins that can fight the virus.
But although this is how all other vaccines work, so far the approach has been unsuccessful in vaccinating again HIV. The problem is that the virus is too smart. As the article explains, it “hides many of the identifying proteins on its outer coat, cloaking them from the prying eyes of B cells, and thus no antibodies are made.”
Luckily, there are a few proteins that are unable to hide, like a protein called gp120, which Paul is zeroing in on as a suspected superantigen.
By chemically manipulating gp120 and administering it as a vaccine, it can "cause the B cells to ramp up their production of unusually powerful antibodies, thwarting the virus's attempts at sabotage, arming the immune system, and protecting the body against HIV," writes the Newsweek reporter.
Though all of this sounds pretty scientific, Paul’s approach has attracted a number of nonscientist followers, mostly due to the efforts of Zach Barnett, a former publicist who saw a news program about the Texas scientist’s unusual approach and decided to use his skills to get the word out about Paul’s work. Barnett is now in charge of development for the Covalent Immunology Foundation, a grassroots group that raises money for Paul's research.
So far, the group has raised $50,000 by hosting fundraising events complete with drag queens and indie musicians. They have also created student groups called W.A.D. Squads that go out across university campuses to raise money for a phase-one trial of Paul's vaccine.
Though some scientists are put off my Paul’s unconventional approach, he believes the vaccine’s differences are its greatest strengths.
"People have been trying to achieve for many, many years what we are claiming we can achieve," he says. "Some of the resistance we are seeing now is because it's a competitive field —but the doubt is also because what we've done is revolutionary. If our vaccine worked by conventional methodologies, I think there would be much less doubt."
The next step for Paul’s research is to test the vaccine on monkeys. However, he will need to raise about $2.5 million to move into monkey research, a goal that Barnett believes can be achieved. Only further studies will tell whether Paul’s research turns out to be worth the gamble.
But, says Barnett, given the failure of traditional science to create an HIV vaccine, "I think risks are justified at this point."