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Calcutta role in AIDS vaccine trial

Calcutta, Aug. 14: The international search for an AIDS vaccine has arrived in India.

Thanks to the efforts of a team of scientists from the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (Niced) in Calcutta, a prototype that has cleared toxicological tests on animals is ready for human trials in the first quarter of next year.

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), the only global organisation working in several countries for an inoculation that could prevent an HIV infection, says the Indian effort “holds good promise”. An international team, which met Niced officials in Calcutta today, explained to The Telegraph why.

“First, the approach taken by the scientists involved is unique from the other five IAVI initiatives simultaneously under way in developing countries like Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and China,” said Mark Chataway, its team leader in India.

“The technology is similar to the work being done to develop a cancer vaccine, where the body is stimulated to cure cancer cells.”

Second, the huge pool of competent scientists available in India is a big asset “nowhere to be found, not even in developed countries”, he said.

“Involving them would be essential in the phase III multi-centre trials likely to take place all over the country by early 2006.” Added to this is India’s capacity to manufacture world-class medication, including vaccines.

A Niced team, led by micro-virologist Sekhar Chakraborti, has developed a vaccine derived from six fragments of the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV), an infection which leads to the as-yet incurable AIDS. Chakraborti had spent six months with Therion Biologics of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to design the vector-based candidate vaccine.

“The vaccine is focused on the type C strain of HIV, which is the most common in India,” said Jean-Louis Excler, IAVI’s medical director. “The vaccine, called Modified Vaccinia Ankara, aims to stimulate the production of immune cells that kill HIV-infected cells,” he added.

The National AIDS Research Institute in Pune is a key player in the initiative. A very sophisticated laboratory with facilities calibrated to international standards is being set up there. “The phase I trials will be conducted there, where 40 healthy persons will be inoculated, 10 with the placebo (dummy) vaccine and 30 with the actual,” said Chataway.

“None of them will know which is what. The volunteers, who will be signed on after getting their informed consent, will have to come back once a month for 16 months to go through various blood and other tests to see if they have experienced any changes or problems. They will be examined for signs of any immune reaction to HIV.”

The small fragments of HIV in the vaccine is intended to fool the immune system into thinking that an infection has taken place, Chataway explained. “The toxicology tests on animals have been successful and give us a lot of hope.” Once the vaccine is fully developed, the Indian government will have the exclusive rights for its commercial sale in the subcontinent.

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