Lita Nelsen is contributing what might be her most valuable asset to the fight against AIDS: her skill in negotiating intellectual property agreements. The director of MIT's Technology Licensing Office (TLO) serves pro bono as an intellectual property advisor to IAVI (International AIDS Vaccine Initiative), a nonprofit organization trying to accelerate the development of an AIDS vaccine for use in developing countries.
"I think an AIDS vaccine is the most important project for our generation. Period. And if we don't find it, it will be much worse for our children," said Ms. Nelsen, who has headed the TLO since 1992. The TLO licenses MIT-developed inventions and software and now holds more than 1,000 US patents in its portfolio.
"If this [AIDS epidemic] were a military threat, we'd have a Manhattan Project with the best minds recruited to work on it. Forget recruited -- they'd be drafted," she said. More than 50 million people have been infected with HIV, the precursor to AIDS.
IAVI, an international agency founded four years ago with a startup grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, receives its funding primarily from philanthropical organizations like the Gates Foundation, which recently awarded a $100 million grant to the agency. The agency believes an AIDS vaccine is the best long-term solution to the disease, and therefore it sponsors directed, goal-oriented research and early-stage clinical trials of potential vaccines targeted toward viral strains prevalent in developing countries.
One way that IAVI plans to succeed in its research and development effort is by working with industry. And this is where Ms. Nelsen's expertise comes in. She believes the way to pull industry into the vaccine development process is by allowing products to be sold in the developed world at a different price than in Africa or Thailand, for example.
"To reward a company for its investment, we need to use a tiered pricing concept," she said.
IAVI negotiates agreements with its industry partners to help ensure that suitable vaccines will be readily available in the developing world at reasonable prices. But that same agreement also would allow a company to develop products under the patent that could be sold in the developed world at a higher price.
"If an AIDS vaccine is going to be developed, industry is going to have to be involved. Corporations have the necessary skills like large-scale manufacturing and quality control. So IAVI needs an IP [industry partner] structure that appeals to industry," said Ms. Nelsen, who helped put together the boilerplate contracts used by the agency -- contracts designed to use intellectual property to foster research development much the way that MIT's IP contracts do.
She characterized her work for IAVI as "random," involving about eight days a year of complex negotiations with IAVI's government, research and industry partners from far-flung places: London, Nairobi and New York. But though her time commitment to the agency is small, her commitment to its mission is wholehearted.
"Basically, the issue is: How are we going to hurry the vaccine up? As many as 10,000 people per day are getting infected, and 25 percent of the population in some countries in Africa already have the disease. If people here think they can wall out Africa and keep the disease there, they're wrong," she said.
"The American population is wearing a blindfold on this issue. Because the drugs are keeping people alive, we're starting to think of AIDS like we think about pneumonia. But there is no cure for AIDS. And the rate [of infection] is climbing again in California.
"My piece of this work is like this," she said, holding up her hands, palms facing about two inches apart. "It's teeny. But if my little piece can speed up the process by even one day, that's 10,000 lives saved. What's the old Jewish saying? 'You redeem one life and you redeem the world.'"
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 9, 2001.