Lust for Life

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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Lust for Life

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