"The Trials of St. Francis"
Wired (www.wired.com) (01/03) P. 88; Martin, Richard

VaxGen, a small biotechnology company based in San Francisco, is set to
begin testing blood samples from patients who have been enrolled in a Phase
III clinical trial of the company's experimental AIDS vaccine, called
AIDSVax, that is the first vaccine to have been successful enough to merit
Phase III testing.  VaxGen founder Don Francis has been seeking an HIV
vaccine since the mid-1980s, with both enthusiasm and skepticism from
observers, who find Francis a very dedicated man but one whose confidence
in the future of an HIV vaccine has certainly brought him some detractors.
The vaccine gp 120 was originally created by Genentech, the world's biggest
biotech company, and its development nearly died in the early 1990s
following a controversial 1989 experiment that indicated gp120 could
protect chimpanzees from developing HIV and unfounded rumors that early
human trials involved several patients who were infected with HIV--an
impossible development, because the vaccine lacks HIV DNA necessary for the
virus' life.  Furthermore, advocacy groups were worried that funding the
vaccine would pull funding away from developing treatment drugs, which were
at that point the focus of the AIDS treatment community--but Francis
refused to let the project die, taking the medicine and forming VaxGen to
ensure that it would at least have a chance of success.  Part of the
trouble is that gp120 prevents only one strain of the disease at a time;
AIDS mutates so quickly that the VaxGen proposal to react to the
development of further strains with additional vaccinations is passed off
as impossible and foolhardy by skeptics.  Naturally, Francis and his chief
scientist, Phillip Berman, contend that the nay-sayers are those with a
product of their own to promote, for which they would not receive funding
if they were to agree that AIDSVax would work.  The firm is facing
increasing pressure, however, as more companies begin to focus on the
prospect of an HIV vaccine, like Merck, which has had far more successful
animal trials than gp120 ever had; but AIDSVax's real test will come in
just a few weeks, when scientists at VaxGen begin looking through their
blood samples to see if their project has any merit, and any hope for the