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Fall 2000 To Kill a Killer
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UCLA scientists were the first to identify AIDS in 1981. Will they now become the first to develop a vaccine against the disease?

By Elaine Schmidt
Photography by Ann Johnson


Kathie Ferbas has wanted to find a vaccine for AIDS since she was a college intern at a Manhattan hospital and watched helplessly as scores of gay men succumbed to a killer disease without a name. Now 36, Ferbas sees her dream within reach.

Ferbas, a virologist, and her colleagues at the UCLA AIDS Institute recently became the first team to create an experimental vaccine with the potential to wield a double-edged sword against HIV, the deadly virus that causes AIDS.

Not only might the vaccine prevent people from contracting HIV, their findings suggest, it may also help the immune systems of those who are already infected to cleanse the virus from their cells. Since the Journal of Virology published Ferbas' study in July - provoking a frenzy of media coverage - she's shifted her focus to testing the vaccine on mice, where it demonstrates promising results.

More than 100 people - many of them HIV-positive and some from as far away as Brazil - have flooded the university with ecstatic e-mails and phone calls offering to volunteer for the vaccine trial. One young man even declared her as "the goddess of West Hollywood" and promised her a seat on the front float of the Gay Pride Parade.

Ferbas, a fast-talking New Yorker with a riot of dark curls and enormous hazel eyes, is quick to point out that her laboratory findings are one step down a long road and much work remains to be done. The UCLA vaccine faces at least five to 10 years of testing before the Food and Drug Administration will consider stamping it for public use. But even with that long horizon in front of her, there's no disguising her excitement.

"To work, a vaccine must stimulate antibodies to fight off new infection - then prompt a cellular reaction to help clear the cells that HIV has already invaded," explains Ferbas, an adjunct assistant professor of hematology and oncology. "Our vaccine is the first from a killed AIDS virus to do both."

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