August 12, 2010

Maryland institute hopes for Gates grant to test AIDS vaccine

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By Len Lazarick

Len@MarylandReporter.com

The Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore hopes to find out in the next few weeks whether it will get a $25 million grant from the Gates Foundation to begin testing the AIDS vaccine it has developed, with clinical trials in Maryland.

Dr. Robert Gallo, who led the discovery of the virus that caused AIDS, told the state Board of Public Works that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation asked them to come to Seattle to discuss the grant application. In 2007, the foundation gave $15 million to Gallo’s institute, part of the University of Maryland Medical School, to develop a vaccine to prevent AIDS.

If Gates does not fund the clinical trials, the institute will have to come up with a new strategy. “We don’t know where the competition is coming from.” and “we may be weeks away” from knowing the outcome, Gallo said.

Gates officials told the institute that they “wanted buy-in” from other funders for the vaccine trials.  Gallo said, “the Army will be involved heavily.”

In a speech to the International AIDS Conference in Vienna last month, Bill Gates pointed out that while scientists had reported encouraging progress toward an HIV vaccine, only three vaccine concepts have ever undergone clinical efficacy testing. “We need to speed up the development process for new prevention tools, and when we get results from these studies, we should be ready to act on them right away,” Gates said.

The Institute of Human Virology leverages taxpayer dollars to attract other public and private grants and investments. It gets about $3.5 million a year from the university, but has a total budget of $114 million.

“We came here naked from NIH (the National Institutes of Health),” to set up the institute in 1996, Gallo said. “We’ve really been helped by the state.”

“I think this has been a great investment for the people of Maryland,” said State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who sits on the institute’s board of advisors, chaired by former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

In addition to basic research on AIDS and viruses that cause cancer, the institute runs a clinic for 5,000 AIDS patients in Baltimore.

“The savings are dramatic to the Maryland economy,” said Dave Wilkins, the institute’s chief operating officer. The clinic keeps the patients productive, and slows the spread of the disease in the community, he said.

The institute also treats 500,000 AIDS victims in nine countries in Africa and the Caribbean with $87 million from the international aid plan created by President George W. Bush.

It also does $21 million in sponsored research for major pharmaceutical companies, and has set up its own vaccine firm, Profectus Biosciences.

Comptroller Peter Franchot and Gov. Martin O’Malley both encouraged Gallo to try to get the vaccines and treatments they develop actually produced in Maryland.

“We do great in research,” O’Malley said, noting the Milken Institute rating of Maryland as #2 in the life sciences. “We want to be into production.”

But Gallo noted that the major drug companies often push to have production done at existing facilities in other states.