SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — In the depths of a converted warehouse, stuck in the corner of a vast refrigerated room, sits a padlocked steel cage that rarely is opened. Locked inside are nine bottles of a crystal clear liquid that, scientists here believe, has the power to cripple the spread of AIDS.
This is the home of Genentech Inc., the father of biotechnology. The liquid is a protein called gp120--the key ingredient in a vaccine that, company researchers say, could prevent infection with the AIDS virus in as many as 60% of people who take it.
For the past two years, the protein has sat, untouched, in cold storage. There is enough here to make 998,013 doses of the vaccine.
But the vaccine will not be made.
After preliminary tests in about 200 people, a panel of independent scientists has concluded that the vaccine does not work as well as Genentech researchers say. In the laboratory, it has flunked a crucial test--it kills only viruses grown in a petri dish, not strains that come from infected people. Now, outside experts and AIDS activists want to wait for something better to come along.
And so in June, the federal government shelved further testing of its two most promising vaccines: the Genentech invention and a similar one manufactured by the Biocine Co. of Emeryville, Calif. The decision was a crushing acknowledgment that a vaccine to prevent AIDS--considered crucial to stemming the worldwide epidemic--may be at least another decade away.
And it is driving Phil Berman and Don Francis crazy.
Francis is a veteran AIDS warrior and a bit of a renegade--an impish, blunt-talking virologist who, while working for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helped in the worldwide effort to eradicate smallpox with a vaccine. Now, he runs Genentech's AIDS vaccine testing program--a program that, with the government's recent decision, is going nowhere fast.
Berman is a self-effacing, 44-year-old molecular biologist whom Francis describes as "a wizard of modern technology." He has spent the past decade toiling in his Genentech laboratory, trying to work his technological magic into an effective vaccine.
The effort has been marked by disappointment, triumph and disappointment again.
There were experiments that worked in guinea pigs but not on chimpanzees--a failure that prompted the company to pull the plug on the project in 1986, just a year after it began. So Berman and his partner, Tim Gregory, forged ahead on their own time, spending two agonizing years coming up with a better formula.
Then there was Christmas, 1988, when this scientific duo sweet-talked Genentech vice presidents into letting them experiment with chimps that had been purchased for another project. Genentech had paid $500,000 for the rights to use the chimps, but the animals were in Texas and the rights were to expire New Year's Day.
In a mad dash, Berman and Gregory shipped the vaccine to Texas, and the chimps got vaccinated just in the nick of time. When the results came in, they rejoiced--the animals were protected against HIV, and Genentech resurrected the vaccine.
At every low point, Berman and his crew went back to the lab. At every high, they treated themselves to a bottle of champagne. \o7 "Veni, vidi, vaccini,\f7 " their company T-shirts proudly proclaim. "I came, I saw, I vaccinated."
But there are no champagne toasts at Genentech these days.
Instead, there is frustration and anger--at other scientists, activists and officials of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who, Berman and Francis say, lack the courage and political will to run a field trial that would test their invention on thousands of people, thus answering once and for all the question of how well it works--or whether it works at all.
"They totally missed the boat," Berman says of the AIDS Research Advisory Council, the independent panel that on June 17 recommended that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases abandon the tests. "Fifty thousand people are becoming infected each year. If we could cut that down, even to 35,000, I think that would be a wonderful thing.
"If we're ever going to have a vaccine, we are going to have to test this product sooner or later. We've built this airplane. Now we have to see how it flies."
But the trial would be expensive--as much as $30 million or more, depending on its length and size--and might require as many as 10,000 volunteers. If the vaccine flopped, it would be a colossal embarrassment for the government, and that could make it more difficult to sign up people for future tests--an argument Francis dismisses as ridiculous.
An epidemic is raging, he insists. Every day without an AIDS vaccine is another day added to the human and economic costs of this devastating disease. In this country alone, every new infection will cost an estimated $100,000 to treat. We cannot, he says, afford to wait.