By Larkin Callaghan
A recent meeting at UC Davis marked 20 years of effort towards a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. When the Targeted Action Group on Vaccines was founded twenty years ago, the HIV epidemic was in a very different place – politically, socially, scientifically, and emotionally. Known as TAG, this program has brought together researchers, students, advocates, and industry, who are invested in and working towards an HIV vaccine.
This group is composed of over 40 HIV vaccine researchers in the Bay Area and Northern California including universities, research institutes, the California Department of Health and several private companies. UC Davis researchers have been active in work on HIV/AIDS since the beginnings of the epidemic, and have taken part in TAG since its founding. The group is led by Professor Jay Levy and meets about every 4 months.
In 1997, while initial treatments for HIV/AIDS had emerged, it was unclear how impacting the side effects would be long-term, if medication could be sustained for HIV-positive individuals, and if there was any indication that research would be able to advance biomedical prevention opportunities.
Now, in the days of PrEP, undetectable viral loads, and antiretroviral therapy that can be taken in one pill a day, it’s clear how many incredible advances have been made in the field of HIV. Yet, a few things remain elusive – and, especially for higher-risk populations, one thing in particular:
The impetus behind TAG was self-explanatory, said Dr. Levy, with “the objective of finding an effective vaccine for preventing HIV transmission.” Though that specific goal remains unmet, the near-quarterly gathering of the TAG has undeniably fostered some of the most promising research contributing to the hopeful elimination of HIV. This past November, the Group celebrated two decades of work when UC Davis hosted the meeting.
That the Bay Area is a biomedical hub has been an undeniable asset. Bringing together academic centers, pharmaceutical companies, trainees, and laboratories posits the TAG to propel the necessary interdisciplinary partnerships that will hopefully lead to a successful vaccine. Such collaboration can be rare. ARI Director Dr. Paul Volberding noted, “by combining the strengths of each invested organization and researcher, the Group is an example of how synthesizing and unifying distinct expertise contributes to quality science and visible, effective advocacy on behalf of the HIV community.”
The attendance at this celebration was indicative of this commitment – with investigators and researchers from the Gates Foundation, UC Davis, Rush University, Global Solutions for Infectious Disease, Blood Systems Research Institute, and more, it underscored how integration leads to solutions.
Of equal importance, says Dr. Levy, is “keeping the community informed on the overall progress being made toward the development of an HIV vaccine.” Hearkening back to the early days of the epidemic, San Francisco and Bay Area investigators have always incorporated the HIV-community into their work, and the involvement of the California and San Francisco Departments of Public Health ensure this continues.
In the spirit of this milestone and in sustained support, Dr. Volberding noted, “the gains made by the Group and colleagues deserve to be lauded and celebrated. [While] real work remains to be done, [we are all] committed to the continued championing and support of this inspiring and successful collective of researchers and clinicians.”
With this, and the ongoing dedication of these vaccine researchers, a 30th birthday might not be needed.