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Tonight I became aware of what appears to be a sad attempt to scam unwitting altruistic people willing to donate their own money in pursuit of developing an HIV vaccine. I am referring to "Immunity Project" a startup non-profit soliciting donations ostensibly to develop an HIV vaccine. (No, I won't link to their website. In my opinion they don't deserve the traffic.)

Follow me over the pretty orange swirl for an explanation.

[Full disclosure: I have a PhD in molecular virology, during which I studied retroviruses similar to HIV. My PhD advisor was and still is conducting research with the ultimate goal of developing an effective vaccine. I, however, never was never an integral part of these projects]

Today in Nature News I found an article discussing a new attempt to crowd-fund an HIV vaccine initiative. Intrigued, I read the article with more or less an open mind. On the one hand: science funding has been pretty bad as of late, so I could see the potential benefit of accelerating something promising. On the other hand: it's far easier to make nothing seem like something to people not well-versed in the scientific details as compared to a group of your peers who would be reviewing a grant application.

Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed in the Nature News article. The aim of the piece seemed to largely center on whether or not such an approach to crowd-source scientific funding had any place at the table rather than the specific project in question. Sure, there were quotes from HIV researchers including this:

"They’re preying on people who are desperate for a vaccine," says immunologist Louis Picker of the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. "The concept they’re selling is an old concept that has been shown not to work, and can’t work."
But, the article read like something out of the traditional media: HIV researcher says "XXX", while Immunity Project CEO says "ZZZ".

So, I decided to check out their website and see what was behind this Immunity Project. What I found is that there doesn't appear to be any substance behind the project. In fact I would argue that it appears like a scam to me. As this is a bit harsh of me to direct such a frank assessment towards members of the same scientific community as myself, I feel that this deserves an explanation.

Let's start with the people.
On their website they list 13 members of their Team. Here's what I could find from their website and Google searches of the 6 scientific members of the Team (Note the huge gaping hole of actual experience in HIV/AIDS research):

1) Dr. Reid Rubsamen - CEO and Co-founder. He is a board certified anesthesiologist who founded Aradigm Corporation in 1990, which is "Fulfilling Unmet Needs in Pulmonary Medicine". Public shares of this company trade off of official exchanges and are currently worth $0.23. As might be expected, some poking around doesn't make it sound like this company have anything promising in the pipe-line. Dr. Rubsamen left Aradigm in 2000 to enter private practice.

2) Charles Herst, PhD - Chief Science Officer. He received his PhD in tumor biology, and did a postdoctoral fellowship in the same field. He joined Aradigm in the '90s and left to found his own clinical lab in Brussels which apparently performed assays to detect changes in the blood during chronic immune/infectious diseases. He then moved on to a Lab Manager position at Zogenix where it says he developed a needle-free delivery system. This could be great if one has a vaccine to go with it!

3) Jack Lloyd - Advisor. He apparently developed the pulse oximetry technology for detecting oxygen levels in the blood, served as Chairman and President of Aradigm in the 1990's, and also held a host of other executive positions in Pharma companies going back to the 80's.

4) Steven Farr, PhD - Advisor. He has a PhD in pharmaceutics and was a co-founder of Zogenix, where he has held several executive positions over a number of years.

5) Igor Gonda, PhD - Advisor. He has a PhD in physical chemistry and has recently served as President and CEO of Aradigm, but before that worked for a few other Pharma companies, including Genentech.

6) Dr. Tikoes Blankenberg - Laboratory Medicine Advisor. He got his MD from UCLA and did a pathology residency. Currently he is a practicing physician and serves on Boards for several Pharma companies.

What about the science?
Based on the White Paper (proposal) posted on their website it's not exactly clear to me what the precise strategy of this group would be if they were given unlimited funding tomorrow. Their stated goal is to prime the cellular arm of the immune system. This means that they would be stimulating a portion of cells in the blood called T-cells. Depending on the type of cells stimulated, and how they are stimulated, this could produce T-cells that would either be primed to kill other infected cells of the body, or T-cells primed to help other cells of the immune system kick-off an immune response.

In their White Paper they state the following:

Much of the HIV vaccine research community is working on developing a neutralizing antibody vaccine that would function in much the same way as most vaccines used commonly today for other diseases.  Because the neutralizing antibody vaccine
development effort, which relies on an immune system B-Cell response, has not yet born
fruit, we have chosen to focus on T-Cell immunity to suppress the virus.
While this is technically true: much of the HIV vaccine field is currently exploring approaches to induce protective antibody production. What it omits is the long string of failed HIV vaccine strategies designed to induce a T-cell mediated immune response. A brief overview of HIV vaccine research can be found at Wikipedia, but let me just discuss the most spectacular vaccine fail, the STEP study. This study used the common cold virus (adenovirus) as a platform to produce HIV proteins with the hopes of developing a T-cell mediated immunity. In the end, the trial was stopped early as a portion of the vaccinated group appeared to be at higher risk of acquiring HIV than the control group. While this was the most noteworthy such study, it was by no means the only one.

One could certainly argue the merits of using adenovirus (as in the STEP study), or any other similar viral platform, for producing a T-cell response. It is absolutely inexcusable to ignore the history of epic fail that has been the T-cell mediated HIV vaccine field. This is made even more inexcusable by the fact that a single vaccine trial has shown modest efficacy (RV114) and the people found to be best protected from HIV acquisition were those who produced quality antibodies, not T-cells.

My Conclusion
Based on the fact that there appears to be a lack of HIV experience and that they are using a strategy with a poor track record of success it appears to me that Immunity Project is trolling for gullible donors to fund their quixotic science project. Hell, I hope to be proven spectacularly wrong. But, the fact is that developing effective vaccines is notoriously difficult for any target, and doubly so for HIV. I would argue for everyone to save their personal money and warn friends/family not to donate to what would otherwise seem to be a worthwhile cause.

Additionally, I worry that this and similar attempts to fund high-risk scientific endeavors are likely to result in a backlash against not just the shady perpetrators, but the greater scientific community as well. This is what prompted me to write a diary tonight after 2+ years of lurking!

Originally posted to Toktora on Mon Feb 10, 2014 at 08:24 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (11+ / 0-)

    Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity, only not as much fun.

    by Toktora on Mon Feb 10, 2014 at 08:24:25 PM PST

  •  Thanks for your post! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Toktora, Orakio, wilderness voice

    You're right, the principles don't seem to have the chops for cutting-edge HIV research. They do seem to know the ins and outs of getting $$, though.

    •  Agreed (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Orakio, Mike Kahlow

      They do have a really slick website. Also, based on the Nature News report Dr. Rubsamen sounds like quite the salesman.

      Unfortunately, I'm worried that he may be selling snake oil not science.

      Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity, only not as much fun.

      by Toktora on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 07:09:11 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't think he's dishonest... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        FG, wilderness voice, Toktora

        After reading the opening pages of his white paper, and his interactions with Dr. Abbie Smith over at ERV, I don't think he's being morally dishonest - I think that he means to take his very best shot at developing a vaccine. What I fear is that he doesn't know enough specifically about HIV to realize just how much he doesn't know about fighting it.

        His team appears to be very good at what they do - developing inhalation pharmaceuticals. Which, frankly, will be a great delivery vehicle for a working vaccine, especially in Africa, where sterility "in the field" can be in short supply.

        They are rocket scientists declaring that since they understand rockets and explosives, they will build a nuclear ICBM. And make no mistake: They can build an ICBM. It's just the nuclear part is really, really tricky, not in principal, but in practice - and until you get in there and try, you don't really understand how tricky.

        •  Good analogy (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Orakio, Mike Kahlow

          I didn't mean to suggest that he is being dishonest in the truest sense of the word. Rather what we seem to have is the case where the snake oil salesman really believes that his oil is the miracle cure for everything.

          As for the specifics, I have no doubt that advances in delivery vehicles could be a wonderful advance (I mentioned so in the diary). But they're meaningless if you don't have something to deliver.

          These guys have something that "creates a memory immune response in mice". Anyone in the field will tell you that HIV generates wonderful immune responses in mice and rabbits, but this is meaningless in humans. There's literally 100+ different HIV vaccine strategies that have generated an immune response in mice. None of them do squat in people.

          As you said, the bottom line is these guys just don't know the virus all that well. This is probably why they have been unsuccessful in getting competitive funding, thus necessitating the crown-funding scheme.

          Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity, only not as much fun.

          by Toktora on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 10:18:47 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I think we're on the same page... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Toktora, Mike Kahlow

            I just think it's meaningful to draw the line between the Dunning-Kruger incompetence that I think we see here, and the actual evil of peddling something that you know doesn't, and can't work.

            I'm not a virologist. But, working in corporate R&D, I can recognize this: These guys are not researchers in the way we typically think of researchers, they're corporate engineers that think (probably incorrectly) that the basic science is done. There are some systematic ways to make the engineering work, throwing money and manpower through a rigorous matrix to make things happen. There is a time for this - and I don't think it's time for that.

  •  This would not be the first (0+ / 0-)

    crowdfunded "science" scam I've come across.

    Not too long ago, I found one that crowdfunded a perpetual motion machine.

    Dawkins is to atheism as Rand is to personal responsibility

    by terrypinder on Tue Feb 11, 2014 at 12:59:17 PM PST

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