On the last day of our National Conference, we spent a very enjoyable and informative morning at the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, as we visited the prestigious Human Immunology Laboratory (HIL).

Today’s blog comes from Mark Pointer of our Norwich group, who joined us on out advocacy day trip to a working AIDS vaccine lab.

Dr Bergin speaks to the group

On the last day of our National Conference, we spent a very enjoyable and informative morning at the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, as we visited the prestigious Human Immunology Laboratory (HIL).

The HIL is the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative`s flagship laboratory where it performs its own AIDS vaccine research as well as coordinating research for other IAVI labs around the world. IAVI is a global, not-for-profit, public-private product-development partnership working with organizations in countries worldwide to help to develop an affordable AIDS vaccine through research and development, effective clinical trials, education initiatives, policy analysis and advocacy.

We were greeted by Dr Philip Bergin and Dr Emmanuel Cormier, who explained

Dr Bergin shows us the £250,000 multi-laser flow cytometer
Dr Bergin shows us the £250,000 multi-laser flow cytometer

their AIDS research work to date and how HIL serves as a hub for IAVI’s vaccine development partnerships. The HIL team, consisting of 18 research scientists and technicians play a pivotal role in AIDS vaccine development in low and middle income countries. Partners include the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Rwanda’s Project San Francisco, the Uganda Virus Research Institute, the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Zambia–Emory HIV Research Project. In some countries where IAVI is not sponsoring clinical studies, the organization works with partners to support AIDS vaccine research and advocacy efforts

The HIL team also oversees the training in IAVI’s extended network of collaborating clinical research centres  With their support nearly all of the labs in this network have received international accreditation in Good Clinical Laboratory Practices (GCLP), ensuring the standardization of laboratory procedures applied in IAVI-sponsored vaccine trials.

Blood samples!
Blood samples!

Dr Bergin took us on a guided tour of the laboratory, explaining the research which was being carried out in different areas. He told us that one of the main problems of the development an AIDS vaccine is the ability of the HIV virus to mutate before immune system antibodies can neutralize the virus. Also, the cost of developing a vaccine became clear when we were told that just one of the pieces of equipment (multi-laser flow cytometer) cost £250,000!

The laboratory is the central Repository where all the specimens from HIV vaccine trials and epidemiology studies are stored and we were very impressed with the liquid nitrogen pods, in which tens of thousands of 1ml specimen tubes are stored either in -180 C in liquid nitrogen pods (Blood) or in– 80 C freezers (Serum).

During a Q & A session with Dr Bergin and Dr Cormier they explained that DFID is a major funder but IAVI has brought in other UK partners including Oxford University, St.George’s Hospital and Imperial College.

Vaccine research is a long-term and costly investment, but the potential rewards

Our handsome Mr Poitner inspects the samples
Our handsome Mr Poitner inspects the samplesare very much more cost effective compared to the price of continual antiretroviral treatment. Currently investment in AIDS vaccine research stands at £800 million compared to the cost of antiretroviral drugs being £22 billion. However, for every two people put on antiretroviral therapy five become newly infected with HIV.

IAVI’s current donors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Starr Foundation, the governments of Denmark, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New York City, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Dr Cormier explained that IAVI helps to address the critical gaps in vaccine development by bringing together experience and expertise with ground breaking new early research from academia. In IAVI projected models, if a vaccine can be produced giving 70 % effectiveness against the AIDS virus, it would save 8.9 million lives.

Both doctors have been encouraged by results of a clinical trial in Thailand in 2009 and are hoping that the new development goals feature R & D. They are also hoping that the UK government will understand the value and benefits of a long-term investment into vaccine development.

The HIL is tucked away inside the Chelsea and Westminister Hospital. I work in an NHS laboratory and was not even aware of its existence. Yet, as we walked around the HIL and talked to Drs. Bergin and Cormier it was clear to us that it is carrying out ground breaking work. What a shame its work is not better known and made more visible to potential donors, policy decision makers and the general public. The UK should be very proud of the work these researchers are doing. Just listening to Dr Bergin and Dr Cormier, you can see how passionate and determined they are to maintain the important progress made in IAVI`s research in finding an AIDS vaccine. A vaccine would dramatically transform the lives of millions of people world-wide. It would also reduce the growing need for antiretroviral drugs by stopping AIDS infections taking hold. We sincerely hope that IAVI’s present donors continue to support them are that more donors will come on board to support this vital research.