The company is the only one to bring the testing of an AIDS vaccine to its final stage, reports CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin.
"We're optimistic we can make a vaccine to stop the epidemic," said VaxGen researcher Don Francis.
VaxGen has invested 15 years and $200 million in its product. The final results from its research are expected one year from now. With 40,000 new HIV infections every year in the United States alone, the pressure is on to find something that works.
The Chief of Infectious Diseases at Columbia Presbyterian, Dr. Scott Hammer explained, "We need a vaccine desperately to fight HIV."
The development of an AIDS vaccine is one the most daunting tasks facing modern medicine. To see if it works, scientists must rely on a group of people who will expose themselves to HIV. That presents some ethical problems.
More than 5,000 volunteers were recruited. Tom Shroeder volunteered for the last three years to donate his time and body to the cause. He, like many on the trial, has personal reasons for signing up.
Four years ago, Shroeder's partner, Dan Breen, died of AIDS. Shroeder is testing the AIDS vaccine in an effort to end the deadly epidemic and memorialize his partner.
"There's not a time that I don't go in for my infections that I don't spend a lot of time in the day thinking about Dan, and Dan's life, and our life together," said Shroeder.
Shroeder and other volunteers must be HIV negative, but at risk. The only way the vaccine can be adequately and ethically tested is to carefully counsel volunteers against risky behaviors like unsafe sex, while counting on the fact that a certain percentage won't listen.
"Obviously, individuals have to take risks in order to get the answer ... in reality that's why we need a vaccine," said Francis. "We know there are limits to our counseling or any counseling programs."
Since some volunteers get only placebo, they have to be reminded that the trial offers no protection.
"You have to guard against people feeling protected when it's still being tested," said Hammer.
There's much disagreement about whether the VaxGen vaccine will even work. But, there is consensus that the trial has been a success — creating an important model for how to test an AIDS vaccine. This is a medical milestone in and of itself.
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