By Kevin Davies
and Morris R. Levitt
President and CEO
With the National Institutes of Health annual budget exceeding $23 billion, a $14-million budget per year for a major medical research project is a fairly paltry sum. When the project is one that links some of the best institutions and minds in AIDS research in order to produce an effective vaccine that could save millions of lives, funding should be a nonissue. Unfortunately, that is not the case — and the bio-IT community has to find a way to remedy this troubling situation.
The organizers of the Waterford Project (see "Accelerating the Race Against AIDS") describe their venture as a "virtual Manhattan Project ... to discover, design, manufacture, and distribute worldwide a safe, effective HIV/AIDS vaccine." The founders include several of the most prestigious AIDS research organizations in the country: The Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology at the University of California at San Francisco, headed by Warner Greene; the Harvard AIDS Institute, directed by Max Essex; and the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, founded by Robert Gallo, the codiscoverer of HIV.
The scientific credentials of the key participants are certainly impressive, but there are several other remarkable features of the Waterford Project:
It is a perfect example of what we have defined as bio-IT: the thorough integration of IT — including advanced networking — and biomedical research.
It has the potential not only to improve communications and data sharing among major AIDS research groups, but also to increase research productivity by redirecting and focusing research efforts in the most promising directions. In particular, the organizers aim to harness the Internet2 — the new 14,000-mile, science-oriented fiber-optic network — to aid real-time collaboration and provide the "information technology glue that will bind the scientific synergy of the Waterford Project," according to the Web site.
It focuses on a disease, AIDS, that is devastating whole communities in the United States and entire countries in Africa and other parts of the world. Protease inhibitor cocktails have radically improved the prognosis for those HIV-infected patients in developed countries fortunate enough to have access to them, but the virus is devilishly clever in its ability to rapidly mutate and avoid extinction, lurking in the body and ready to rebound the moment a patient stops taking the drugs.
The development of a vaccine that curtails or even eradicates AIDS would be one of the greatest alleviators of human suffering in medical and scientific history. For most pharmaceutical companies, however, economic concerns (not to mention
|The profile of AIDS in the public consciousness has waned in recent years. The strident political activism of the '80s and the therapeutic advances of the '90s have contributed to the false perception that the disease is somehow under control, or someone else's problem.
litigation risks related to vaccine side effects) dictate that research focus on drugs for infected patients rather than vaccines. But as Barry Bloom, the dean of Harvard University's School of Public Health, pointed out recently in Nature Medicine,
"It's cheaper in human and financial terms to prevent disease than it is to cure it."
There are several promising ongoing efforts to develop an AIDS vaccine, both in industry and academia. Merck & Co. is devoting significant resources to the issue and recently lured HIV expert Peter Kim away from the Whitehead Institute to succeed Ed Scolnick as executive vice president of research and development. The NIH spends more than $200 million a year on vaccine research, and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) is backed by $125 million over five years from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
And yet, despite its immense potential and scientific credibility, the Waterford Project has so far received just one significant donation, $1 million from the John D. Evans Foundation, leaving it woefully short of meeting its $14 million annual operating budget. Part of the reason is the understandable shift in charitable donations following the Sept. 11 disaster. There is also stiff competition from other worthy nonprofit vaccine programs, including IAVI.
How to Help
Although several leading AIDS researchers we contacted expressed optimism that the Waterford's funding shortfall would prove transient, there is an immediate need to ensure that such a promising venture does not collapse before it even gets off the ground. How can the bio-IT community assist?
Every major biopharmaceutical company should immediately pledge $500,000 to $1 million per year in support of the project (using nonprofit affiliates and foundations, if necessary).
Major IT, networking, and telecommunications companies can provide free technical consulting on infrastructure and communications issues, and join with biopharmaceutical companies in underwriting the infrastructure costs.
The NIH should provide a "fast- track" grant mechanism for the project.
The profile of AIDS in the public consciousness has waned in recent years. The strident political activism of the '80s and the therapeutic advances in the '90s have contributed to the false perception (at least in some quarters) that the disease is somehow under control, or someone else's problem. The facts say otherwise: More than 20 million people have died of AIDS in the past two decades and more than 40 million people are infected worldwide, with thousands of new cases arising every day. The Waterford Project may or may not make a lasting contribution in the quest for a vaccine to end the scourge of AIDS, but it surely deserves the opportunity to make its best contribution to the effort.
To make a tax-deductible donation to the Waterford Project, go to this page: http://www.waterfordproject.org/giving/cash.html