“Kafkaesque” is not a word normally used to describe immune responses, but it’s how Dr. Louis J. Picker described what his experimental vaccine did to his rhesus monkeys: “It’s like their T-cells were turned into the East German secret police, hunting down infected cells until there were none left.”
Recent work by Dr. Picker, a vaccine expert at Oregon Health & Science University, has shaken up the long, frustrating search for an AIDS vaccine. His latest study, published in Nature last week, has scientists scratching their heads, wondering if it might open up a new avenue for research.
Dr. Picker tested his vaccine in 16 monkeys who were then infected with simian immunodeficiency virus, a close relative of H.I.V., which normally would have sent them spiraling rapidly down to a miserable death. The experimental vaccine protected only nine of them, but it also did something never seen before: these monkeys slowly “cleared” the virus and now appear to be cured. “Three years later, you can’t tell them from other monkeys,” Dr. Picker said.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the effect was “unique.”
And Dr. Barton F. Haynes, the director of the Human Vaccine Institute at Duke University’s medical school, said it was “potentially extremely important to understand how this happened.”