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Booster Shot for AIDS Vaccine Research

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced today a new program that will quickly pour $6 million into grants to pursue risky, novel ideas for an AIDS vaccine. NIAID is hoping that this injection of cash will rev up a field that has all but stalled.

The new funding mechanism, called the INNOVATION Grant Program for Approaches in HIV Vaccine Research, is the first achievement of the AIDS Vaccine Research Committee (AVRC), a group headed by Nobel Prize-winner David Baltimore of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At its initial meeting on 17 February, the committee discussed what was broken in the vaccine research system that it could help fix. "Part of what they considered broken is that there isn't enough of an opportunity to do research on vaccines that will get through the system in a timely fashion," explains NIAID's Carole Heilman, who's overseeing INNOVATION.

The grants, each of which will pay $150,000 in direct costs for 2 years, will fund research in three key areas. One is a better understanding of the surface protein of the AIDS virus, HIV. Although this question has been heavily studied, AVRC member Norman Letvin of Harvard Medical School explains that critical gaps still exist, such as the development of monoclonal antibodies that work against natural--not just genetically engineered--versions of the protein. AVRC also would like to see more work on developing better animal models, which Heilman says could include applying the new techniques used in the now-famous lamb cloning experiments to develop a genetically identical population of test animals. The third focus will be on maximizing the body's immune response to HIV by using different strategies to present pieces of the virus to the immune system.

Grant proposals are due by 23 May, and NIAID will make awards by 30 September.