Thursday, October 09, 2003

The National Center for Biodefense at GMU has announced that smallpox vaccination might protect against HIV infection.
The study was conducted using blood cells from 10 vaccinated and 10 unvaccinated subjects. Despite the small number of subjects involved, there was a statistically significant difference in resistance to HIV infection between the blood cells from the vaccinated and the unvaccinated subjects. HIV failed to grow or grew at substantially reduced levels in the cells from the vaccinated group when compared to the unvaccinated group.
The researchers say they got the idea because HIV emerged in Africa at about the same time that smallpox vaccinations stopped there. The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative is apparently dubious, pointing out that we've had a lot of exciting early findings that have failed to pan out.

I'm dubious myself. I notice that Medscape doesn't have anything about this on their HIV home page (although if you search the Medscape site you'll find a Reuters article that's essentially the same as the GMU press release), and nothing about it appears to have been presented at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy or at the AIDS Vaccine 2003 conference. We've seen miraculous advances released to the popular press but not for scientific peer review before, and it hasn't typically boded well for the ultimate scientific value of the research.

There must be more to this theory than temporal correlation, but without anything to go on but the press release, there's no way I can tell what else there might be. In the United States, routine smallpox vaccination was halted in 1972 and the first cases of AIDS were identified in 1982. So virtually every adult infected with HIV in the early days of the epidemic would have been immunized for smallpox. Moreover, genetic analysis of HIV suggests that it's much older than smallpox eradication, and it appears that AIDS had already reached epidemic proportions in parts of Africa by the 1960s.

In short, I'm not expecting anything to come of this - although it would be nice to be pleasantly surprised a few years down the line.