The Challenge of HIV Vaccine Development
A Dialogue With Dr. Beryl Koblin of Project ACHIEVE
The following interview was conducted Dr. J. Buzz von Ornsteiner, a clinical psychologist, Body Positive magazine columnist, and host of the radio show "Ask Dr. Buzz." This interview is transcribed from a broadcasted interview with Dr. Beryl Koblin, principal investigator of Project ACHIEVE (AIDS Community Health Initiative Enroute to a Vaccine Effort) in New York City.
Dr. Koblin's research focus has been on developing testing strategies to prevent HIV and other blood-borne infections and conducting studies to better understand such infections. Currently she is conducting several clinical trials of candidate HIV vaccines. She is here to give the "Ask Dr. Buzz Radio" listeners the information we need about how we can volunteer in this fight against HIV/AIDs. Welcome to the "Ask Dr. Buzz Show."
Dr. Beryl Koblin: Thank you.
Dr. Buzz: We're really glad you're here and we're really excited to hear about everything that's involved with the HIV vaccine. First off -- I would like you tell me about yourself and the HIV Vaccine Trials Network.
Dr. Koblin: Sure. I'm an epidemiologist, someone who studies epidemics and I've spent my career not just studying epidemics, but more importantly, trying to find ways to prevent them. And I'm also in this effort because I can't sit back and watch the HIV epidemic continue.
So we're a part of an international effort to find a vaccine to prevent people from getting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. So some people may ask, "In this day in age, why do we even need a vaccine?" Well, every day 15,000 people become infected with HIV around the world. And as many of your listeners know, it has had a devastating effect on many people, families and neighborhoods and cities and right here in New York City, where we have been hit particularly hard by the epidemic.
There also are treatments out there, luckily, for people who already have HIV. And these treatments are very helpful in helping people return to work and continue with their lives. However, somebody on the treatment has to take those medications for the rest of their lives and they're expensive. And many people will never see these treatments. So if we could find a safe and effective vaccine, we really could have a major impact on the HIV epidemic.
Dr. Buzz: I would agree, I would agree wholeheartedly.
Dr. Koblin: Well, one of the things that people ask us is "how do you find a vaccine that works?" And we use the same process now for HIV vaccines that is used for developing every vaccine. And what we need to do is prepare somebody's immune system, which is what the body uses to protect itself from bacteria and viruses and other types of germs. And, basically, what we want to do is give the body something that looks like HIV, but is not. Then the body's immune system will be ready to fight HIV if it sees it. As you can see, in order to do this, we ask people to volunteer to help in the effort.
Dr. Buzz: Absolutely. When I've just discussed this topic with people throughout the week, because I knew you were coming on the show, it seems that people become fearful, that they're afraid that in some way they may become infected. How do you alleviate those risks? How do you lower anyone's fear that would like to volunteer and like to be part of developing this vaccine?
Dr. Koblin: It's a very good question and it's a question that we get all the time also. And it is impossible to get HIV from these vaccines. They are made in laboratories to look like HIV, but they're not. It's like if I gave you a steering wheel and a wheel; well, you wouldn't be able to go anywhere because you don't have the whole car at all. So it is impossible to get HIV from the vaccine.
Dr. Buzz: Okay. And aside from helping mankind and human development in general, is there any form of payment, or any form of compensation?
Dr. Koblin: Sure. The volunteers will get free physical exams, they get free blood tests, they get counseling and they talk to our staff about being in a vaccine trial and any questions they have. They also are reimbursed with cash for the time that they spend with us. And, as one volunteer told us, each person that volunteers is just helping us just get one smaller step closer. So each person contributes just a little bit to progress, an extra set of hands, a very small effort to a much larger fight.
Dr. Buzz: And, can I ask, what kind of volunteers are you looking for?
Dr. Koblin: We're looking for people who are healthy, who are not infected with HIV already, and who are between the ages of 18 and 50. You call us and we can talk to you initially and then invite you to come in to talk to our clinicians and to our counselors.
Dr. Buzz: And how much of a commitment, how much time would a volunteer need to put in?
Dr. Koblin: I would say, an average study may last between 12 and 18 months and in the beginning, when the volunteers are receiving injections, we see them a little more frequently, maybe once every couple of weeks. But later on we may only need to see them every three to six months.
Dr. Buzz: Okay. And you have a lot of locations? Or you have one or two locations?
Dr. Koblin: We have three locations in the city. One is in the South Bronx, one is in Upper Manhattan at Columbia University and the third one is in Lower Manhattan near Union Square. And if you call our toll-free number you can connect with one of those three, depending on what would be most convenient for you. The name of our group is the New York City HIV Vaccine Trial Unit, so the phone number is based on NYC-HVTU, so the whole toll-free number is 1-877-NYC-HVTU.
Dr. Buzz: Okay, now I don't want to give anyone any false illusions about working in this vaccine trial. People should know that it doesn't prevent you from getting HIV.
Dr. Koblin: You are absolutely right. What we don't know is whether these vaccines actually work to prevent HIV infection. Some of the studies that we're doing, that's exactly the question that we're asking. So we want to make sure that people understand that they may be getting a vaccine that we don't know actually works to prevent infection or they may be getting the placebo, which is kind of sugar or salt water. So people have to understand that they need to be careful.
Dr. Buzz: And you would also be giving people a tremendous amount of information. They know first-hand and foremost what everything is about and what your goals are and how they should actually be careful themselves.
Dr. Koblin: Absolutely. Every time somebody comes in, we talk to them about the vaccine, we talk to them about possible risks that they may be at through different activities so that we make sure that they understand that they're not protected by the vaccine. And people can come in for their regular study visits, but if they need to talk to us in between visits, they can come in at anytime.
Dr. Buzz: That's great, so you're always there for them and you're open for any concerns or issues they might have.
Dr. Koblin: Absolutely, absolutely. We realize that people are volunteering, they're giving us themselves and we want to honor that and help them out as much as we can.
Dr. Buzz: What about if someone comes in and they want to change their minds? They don't want to go through with it after they're in it.
Dr. Koblin: That is perfectly okay. People have the right to withdraw from the study at any time. What we hope is that through all the information that we give folks in the beginning that they can make their minds up and make the commitment to stay in the study. But if something comes up, they can withdraw.
Dr. Buzz: Okay, so they have a lot of freedom and choice here and they also are involved with something that really can only help mankind and human development in general and I think it's a wonderful thing to volunteer for. Before we close we actually played the commercial before my show and I wanted just to ask you if you have any additional things you want to add before we end the interview?
Dr. Koblin: The last thing I would add is just to say again that every person makes a small contribution and that will get us closer to addressing the AIDS crisis.
Dr. Buzz: I think that's a great way to end. Thank you so much for being with us.
For more information, or to make an appointment, you can contact Project ACHIEVE at 1-800-933-BLOOD or visit their Website at www.nybloodcenter.org.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.