Dr. David Baltimore will head a special committee appointed by the National Institutes of Health to revitalize the search for an AIDS vaccine.
"If I can make any difference at all in generating an effective vaccine, I will feel very good," said Dr. Baltimore, the Cottrell Professor of Molecular Biology and Immunology at MIT and winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize in medicine.
"The challenge is to produce a vaccine which will have a significant effect on the number of people dying of AIDS," said Dr. Baltimore, who will divide his time between MIT and the NIH. "There are a lot of candidates [for experimental vaccines], and there has been a tremendous effort to design candidates. But I haven't seen any which satisfy the rigorous criteria for a human vaccine." More than 15 AIDS vaccines have been tested in the United States since 1988, with little success.
Dr. Baltimore was appointed after a study by 114 scientists concerned with AIDS research found that the gov-ernment's $1.5 billion program had stalled and lacked focus. "David Baltimore will play a large role in creating a new agenda," said Dr. William Paul, director of the Federal Office of AIDS Research at the NIH, who announced the appointment last Thursday. "We need some creativity and some new ideas, and he will give us this because of who he is and the fact that he wants to do it."
Dr. Baltimore plans to start by reviewing the vaccine program at the NIH to ensure that his committee is aware of research in progress. After that, he will conduct a series of meetings across the country to solicit research projects. "We want to hear from anyone with new ideas," he said.
Dr. Baltimore, 58, also said he would ask pharmaceutical companies to suggest research possibilities the government could pursue that would aid the private sector. A recent report by the AIDS Research Advocacy Council found that companies had lost interest in AIDS vaccines for a variety of reasons, including high costs and the risk of liability.
The appointment was applauded by the medical community and AIDS activists.
"David Baltimore is a brilliant choice," said Dr. Barry Bloom, an immunologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Jim Mullins, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington, called for Dr. Baltimore to be "aggressive toward getting things done." Dr. Dani Bolog-nesi, a leading AIDS researcher at Duke University said, "we need leadership."
Derek Hodel, director of the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York, noted that Dr. Baltimore has "long advocated matching the boldest minds against HIV." Mark Harrington of New York's Treatment Action Group described the appointment as "a big shot in the arm. Dr. Baltimore has the experience, the vision and the insight to reinvigorate the search for a safe and effective vaccine." NIH Director Harold Varmus was equally enthusiastic. "David Baltimore will make a difference," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 18, 1996.