A chemical engineer, a polymer physicist and a chemist gather for coffee – and not much happens. “We could have all the greatest ideas in the world to discuss over coffee, but without funding, it is not possible do to more than napkin sketches,” said Darrell Irvine, a material scientist at the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who, along with dozens of scientists, have received funding to break down silos of scientific disciplines to create an AIDS vaccine.
Irvine is trying to deliver cancer drugs in a microscopic capsule that can target – and kill – viruses, including HIV.
Finding a safe, effective AIDS vaccine has, thus far, proved elusive even after some US$8 billion invested from 2001-2011 into vaccine research and development. Scientists point to HIV’s Houdini-like ability to escape immune system attack, and less-than-strategic use of funds over the past decade, as reasons for the continued hunt.
The most promising vaccine candidate so far, known as RV144, was shown to be 31 percent effective in Thailand, according to findings reported in 2009.
Follow-up testing with thousands of men who have sex with men in Thailand, and heterosexuals who are at high risk of getting HIV in South Africa, is being planned to see how to boost this vaccine combination’s efficacy, as well as adapt it to different HIV strains. Even under the best case scenario, it would be another decade before a vaccine will be licensed, according to Nina Russell, a senior programme officer with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, taking into account how long it takes to plan and carry out a clinical trial, analyse results and gain licensure.
Back at the lab, convincing scientists to participate in the hunt for a vaccine is not easy, said Bruce Walker, the director of Ragon Institute, a collaboration founded in 2009 between medical and academic institutions in Massachusetts with private funding to speed up HIV vaccine development.
“I believe that many scientists would be delighted to apply their talents to a problem as huge as HIV, but see no clear path to doing so.”
When Walker approached Arup Chakraborty in 2008, a chemical engineer at MIT who has analysed scientific information using “statistical mechanics”, to work on HIV research, Chakraborty resisted. “I did not see what I could bring to a field that is already crowded. It is hard to stand out in a field where so many others are working,” he said. But after Walker took him to visit patients hospitalized with AIDS in South Africa, that changed. “I had never imagined such devastation,” said the scientist after his first encounters with people infected with HIV.
He and collaborators received one of Ragon’s “innovation awards”, $115,000 per year for up to two years, which allowed him to apply the same technology that helps investors pick stocks (random matrix theory) to study patient reactions to vaccines.
In 2005 a coalition of research groups representing some 250,000 scientists in the US formed a “Coalition for the Bridging Sciences” to seek more US government funding for research that crossed over into more than one area of science. In its position paper it noted “computational biologists receive funding to model biological systems, but they generally do not receive support to solve the deeper problems.”
Such cross-over work and funding is still relatively scarce, said Chakraborty. “All our [US] universities are organized according to boundaries. It’s changing, but we are not there yet.”
Funding for cross-disciplinary research is still limited, said Ellen Weiss from the US non-profit Biophysical Society, which spearheaded the bridging science initiative. “Since 2005, US funding agencies have indicated an interest in making sure cross-disciplinary research does not fall between the cracks, but funding is still tight.”
In addition to the US National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, which since 2010 have supported cross-disciplinary science research, the Gates Foundation committed $100 million in 2007 to encourage scientists to “expand the pipeline of their ideas”.
More than 500 researchers in about 40 countries have received $100,000 “Grand Challenger Exploration” grants, of whom 20 have received additional monies of up to $2 million.
“Chips” that hold cell samples for analysis
While scientists still largely work in the “silos” of their disciplines, said Irvine, there are more cases where technology developed for one purpose is being applied to biology.
Chris Love, an MIT chemist and Ragon funding recipient, is using technology behind semi-conductor chips (used in computers) to develop “chips” that hold cell samples for analysis. “Think of it like an ice cube tray where we can put cells from the immune system and then ask questions about… how they interact, how they respond to vaccines and drugs,” he said, holding out what appeared to be, simply, a glass slide.
“[As a chemist], you are used to solving problems where you have to build a new molecule. Here we have a problem where a lot of things have been tried, but there is no solution yet. As an engineer you look at it and you say, `I might be able to contribute something to this,’” he added.
Galit Alter, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, said there is a new generation of integration between the sciences, which has become a necessity when “silo” approaches have come up short on a vaccine. “With new tools, we are able to ask new questions,” said Alter.
The US-based International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) calculates that an AIDS vaccine can prevent up to 10.7 million new HIV infections, saving up to $95 billion in treatment costs globally between 2020 and 2030, depending on the characteristics of the vaccine and its reach. IAVI’s modelling tool looked at scenarios for different regions of the world.
Based on the latest figures available from the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), some 1.7 million people died from AIDS-related causes in 2011, while 34.2 million lived with HIV that year.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]