Troy Masters, 37, has lost 15 friends to AIDS in the decade he has lived in New York. Gay and HIV-negative, Masters believes that the best hope for eradicating the disease lies with immunization.
During the next three years, doctors will draw his blood and inject him seven times with a vaccine developed to prevent HIV. Masters is one of the first participants in a clinical trial of a genetically engineered vaccine, called AIDSVax.
"It seems the only answer science has been able to come up with so far is that AIDS should be a chronic, manageable illness," Masters says. "I'm here to say that's not acceptable."
Drug cocktails of protease inhibitors have been the best weapon for managing HIV and AIDS so far, but this would be the world's first vaccine to prevent HIV.
The trial will be conducted with 5,000 volunteers nationwide. The participants must be sexually active gay men and heterosexual women who are HIV-negative. Two-thirds of the group will receive the vaccine and the rest will get a placebo.
"We're trying to measure what fraction of infections are prevented in those who receive the vaccine, compared to the rate of new infection in those who are receiving the placebo," says principal investigator Dr. Michael Marmor, of the New York University School of Medicine.
All of the participants will be provided with counseling on safe sex and how to avoid HIV, but Dr. Marmor says the trial depends on some of them exposing themselves to HIV through high risk sex.
"Even with counseling some small fraction of people will let down their guard," Marmor says.
Dr. Marmor says participants should not fear taking the vaccine because it is not possible to contract aids from the injections. However, there is no guarantee that the vaccine will prevent participants from contracting HIV if they practice unsafe sex.
Although AIDS deaths have been declining, new infections of the disease remain constant at a rate of about 16,000 per day. Researchers say a cure for the disease is still many years away. That makes finding a vaccine to prevent HIV a top priority.
About 600 people nationwide have already received injections. NYU plans to enroll a total of 150, and has signed up 20 to 30 people already. Masters is the third to be injected, but the first to go public with his participation.
Mount Sinai Medical Center and the New York Blood Center plan to enroll another 350 in New York City.
Earlier versions of the same vaccine have been found to induce an antibody response, according to Dr. Mary Vogler, co-investigator of the NYU study. "The purpose of this study is to try and fin out whether the antibody response is protective," she said. "We are somewhat optimistic."
If the vaccine can be shown to prevent or minimize HIV infection, it would be licensed by the Food and Drug Administration for mass distribution.
Masters publishes a biweekly newspaper, Lesbian and Gay New York, and said he intends to chronicle his participation in the study in a column in the newspaper beginning with the Dec. 30 issue.