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Fall 2000 To Kill a Killer
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"It's a perfect example of how the AIDS Institute encourages collaboration," Ferbas observes. Dr. Yvonne Bryson of pediatrics later joined the scientific team to launch a trial for children.

Ferbas and her colleagues must triumph over a number of daunting scientific challenges before bringing their vaccine to a waiting public. These include proving that the dead virus can't grow, even fractionally, and pinpointing the vaccine's proper dosage, scheduling and span of effectiveness. First, however, they must show that it works in humans, something that animal studies can't predict.

"No one knows if we can prevent HIV infection completely," Ferbas says. "Most vaccines - like the immunization we receive against childhood diseases - rely on a series of injections to introduce a small level of infection, then rapidly clear the virus from our immune systems. In reality, we'll probably need a combination of approaches to produce immunity.

"For people already living with HIV, we hope the vaccine will enhance the effectiveness of AIDS medications and wean patients off these costly drugs and their side effects," she adds. "We'll need to learn how many injections to give people, the dosage of each shot, their timing and how long their effect will last."

Ferbas also must surmount more practical obstacles. "These trials are expensive," she says bluntly. "To be successful, we'll need private support as well as research grants."

Ferbas' passion to create a vaccine has increased exponentially since her college days. Every day, doctors diagnose 16,000 new HIV infections. Ninety percent of these cases occur in the developing world, which can't afford drugs to stop HIV from escalating to full-blown AIDS. A staggering 16 million adults and children have died of AIDS, and more than twice that number live with HIV. AIDS has become the world's No. 1 infectious - and preventable - killer. Los Angeles remains the second-largest epicenter for the epidemic.

"Now that we're putting this clinical trial together, I don't sleep at night," Ferbas admits. "We have to find an HIV vaccine and do it soon. We can't afford not to."

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Elaine Schmidt is a public information officer in the School of Medicine.

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