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By: Sally Ann Flecker
At 31%, the efficacy rate in a 2009 HIV-vaccine trial wasn’t spectacular by any stretch of the imagination. But—as the first clear sign that there might even be such a thing as a safe and effective vaccine for AIDS, which has killed more than 30 million people since it was first identified in 1981—it was cause for celebration.
For Peggy Johnston, at the time director of the Vaccine Research Program in the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), it was also a moment of vindication.
As a member of the steering committee, she had supported the trial—even when 22 leading U.S. AIDS researchers, in a letter published in Science, had publicly argued against it as a waste of money.
The human-phase clinical trial took place in Thailand under the joint auspices of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program and the Thai Ministry of Public Health; it combined two genetically engineered vaccine hopefuls. At the heart of the controversy, which prompted the Science letter, was the fact that neither vaccine had shown much promise when administered alone in previous clinical studies. However, administered in a series of inoculations as prime and booster vaccines, the RV 144 vaccine did prevent HIV infection among some of the participants.
The results of the trial triggered further studies, which suggested that antibodies directed against a specific portion of the HIV’s external envelope protein are key players in protecting people from HIV infection. That promising news was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, further solidifying the view by nearly all researchers that the Thai trial initiated “the great hope of AIDS vaccine research.” It also exemplifies why Johnston (S’72) has been considered a global leader in HIV vaccine research for the past 20 years.
Her long career in AIDS research began in 1987 with a chance encounter. She was an assistant professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. There, she was following what she saw as the typical university career path—“become a professor, teach school, have a lab, fight for research money,” she says. But all of that changed one day when she chatted with a former colleague as they waited at an elevator. He told her about a program starting at NIAID to focus on the AIDS pandemic. Might she be interested?
The idea appealed to her on several levels. “First of all, this was a disease affecting my community, since I am a member of the gay community,” she says. “Here’s a chance to do something that has a little more meaning for me personally.”(Continued …)