The story of two lives — a man with a unique physiology and a scientist seeking a cure — both dedicated to changing the course of the AIDS epidemic.
2008 stands out as a life-changing year for Dr. Sudhir Paul and Zachary Barnett although they had yet to meet.
Dr. Paul, a chemical immunologist at the University of Texas at Houston, announced that he had invented an E-Vaccine that allows the immune system to attack a mostly unchangeable yet vulnerable part of HIV. Meanwhile Barnett, a New Yorker transplanted from Memphis, learned that he was HIV positive and was considered an “elite controller,” meaning he kept the virus in check sans medication.
Three years later, the two would join forces when Barnett founded the Abzyme Research Foundation (ARF), a non-profit organization to advance the vaccine into human trials in the hopes that it would lead to a widely accessible — and affordable — vaccine to eradicate HIV entirely from the globe.
“I became interested in cure research through a donation of my own plasma,” Barnett says, “and soon after became aware of Dr. Paul’s work. Donating and participating in research is great, but your ability to understand your impact in a more conscious, engaged way is limited. Dr. Paul is sort of the underdog, but I’m a fan of the underdog.”
Dr. Paul’s group received $25 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health and launched Covalent Bioscience, ARF’s for-profit startup partner, with the hope of applying his E-Vaccine and abzyme technologies for low-cost, more effective disease treatment.
Here’s the science they’re working with: The HIV vaccine candidate is an electrophilically activated variant of the virus coat protein gp120 (HIV E-Vaccine). Dr. Paul’s research has aimed to determine its ability to induce robust, long-lasting antibody responses to a region of the gp120 envelope protein – one that could potentially prevent and cure HIV infection.
In October, ARF announced an unrestricted $325,000 gift to Dr. Paul’s laboratory to test the vaccine’s efficacy. “It is our hope that the successful completion of this study will mark another milestone achievement by our team and encourage further support for this vaccine from the scientific establishment,” Dr. Paul said. “Completely preventing and curing HIV infection hinges on eliminating the development of HIV resistance to the proposed curative agent.”
That process is ongoing. In 2014, ARF completed a Pre-Investigational New Drug filing and meeting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which provided suggestions for moving forward toward human trials.
To reach that stage, ARF launched the #endHIV campaign and enlisted singer and songwriter Sia, who has been donating royalties from her “Free Me” video featuring actresses Julianne Moore and Zoe Saldana. ARF also has partnered with Greater Than AIDS, YouTube and Broadway Cares, among others.
As they approach human trials, people have written requesting to participate, although participation will largely be dictated by the site of the trial and FDA approvals.
“It has been amazing to work with a team of researchers who have been committed to one idea for so long,” Barnett says. “It’s my hope to soon validate their 25 years of work in a clinical study on humans. If the antibody produced by the vaccine is potent enough to suppress infection in the absence of daily drugs, that would be our hallelujah moment.”
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Last modified: March 6, 2018