Lust for Life

The latest HIV vaccine trial asks volunteers to fight AIDS by having sex

| August 3, 2006

A quarter of a century ago, doctors first noticed a vexing new disease among San Francisco's gay men. Since then, AIDS has gone on to become a household name of the worst variety: an epidemic without a cure. Yet, for many in today's gay and straight communities, the sorrow of marking the 25th anniversary of AIDS this year is tempered by the hope that stopping the disease may soon be as simple as making love.

According to Eliza Strickland of SF Weekly, AIDS researchers are quietly shopping a new HIV vaccine created by the pharmaceutical heavyweight Merck. The vaccine, after yielding promising results in lab animals and preliminary tests, is currently undergoing human trials in 25 international sites, including San Francisco. HIV researchers, who see this phase of vaccine trials as the next big step in the fight against AIDS, have thusly dubbed it the 'Step Study.'

Hoping to stand out among previously hyped and ultimately failed HIV vaccines, the Step Study version introduces three replicated HIV genes into the body via the common cold, at which point the infected cells trigger an attack by white 'Killer T' blood cells patrolling for infections. The idea is that the vaccine will condition the Killer Ts to recognize and eliminate HIV infected-cells, so that in the case of a real HIV infection, the body responds in kind. (Researchers note that since the vaccine doesn't rely on a weakened or killed form of the virus, it won't be capable of infecting anyone itself.)

The science behind the Step Study vaccine seems promising, but some are worried that the trials don't have their ethics in order. As Strickland points out, the Step Study 'seems morally questionable, as researchers will get results only if the volunteers engage in unprotected sex and put themselves at risk for infection.' Admittedly, Step Study researchers and educators, like Jennifer Sarche of the San Francisco Department of Public Health's HIV research section, target volunteer recruitment among individuals whose actions put them at higher risk of infection. In San Francisco that often means non-monogamous, homosexual men with a penchant for nightlife. However, while targeted, these same volunteers also are offered condoms and counseling and encouraged to reduce risky behavior. The standard HIV precautions, though, 'are not enough,' says Sarche, 'and that's why we need a vaccine.' As for their role as guinea pigs, San Franciscan gay men, whether injecting true vaccines or placebos, are leading the trial charge with almost 100 volunteers, who, Strickland writes, will 'be clubbing for a cause and having sex for science.' -- Evan Noetzel

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