A world in dire need of an HIV vaccine; new research indicating the presence of human “controllers” who naturally keep the virus in check; and a veteran anesthesiologist with capital, poise, and the guts to dream big in a field where dreams burn faster than anywhere else. What could go wrong?
Dr. Reid Rubsamen, a key physician at John Muir Health and Massachusetts General Hospital who specializes in the minute labor of putting people under during surgery, is the co-founder and CEO of the Immunity Project. In case you haven’t used the internet in past months, the Immunity Project is an ambitious attempt to crowd-source funding for a vaccine for HIV. Once developed, synthesized, quality-checked, and packaged, Rubsamen’s product will ship to nations all over the world, where it will be distributed for free. Let it be perfectly clear: a finished product will put an end to the epidemic that has raged for more than three decades and killed more than 30 million people.
It is for this reason no real shocker that the non-profit, which now enters its fourth year, is on its way to hit the $400,000-target it set for its crowdfunding effort last year. The website also mentions several earlier grants from various sources, including a check for $1 million from Microsoft, who helped write certain algorithms used in the research. Past milestones are assembled in neat boxes, and the total estimated budget of $24 million is itemized in a list of detailed entries like “flow cytometer,” “nasal formulation dose development,” and “animals.”
“This work has been made possible by an intensive effort by computer scientists at universities and industry focussed on hacking into the HIV life cycle by analyzing blood from HIV controllers – people who, despite being infected with HIV, have very low viral loads and do not develop AIDS,” the Rubsamen and colleagues write. “Statistical analysis of the behaviour of T-Cells from blood from these individuals shows that they attack specific beneficial targets which force the HIV virus to mutate into a weakened state.”
The project, in other words, is modeled on the vaguely metaphorical and fundamentally appealing idea that victims of the HIV are also its foil. Those who carry the infection in a suppressed state are elevated to a new breed of “superheroes,” whose unique immune system has the potential to save the world in a pretty literal sense. With these so-called controllers, Rubsamen hopes to create the first-ever synthetic vaccine against the ravaging infection.
So What Is The Problem?
While the public may be all about the project, Rubsamen’s peers aren’t entirely onboard. According to Nature — a publication whose clout within the scientific community is surpassed only by the Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine — several researchers take issue with the actual science that underpins the project. "They’re preying on people who are desperate for a vaccine," Dr. Louis Picker, an immunologist at the Oregon Health and Science University, told reporters. "The concept they’re selling is an old concept that has been shown not to work, and can’t work."
Though Picker’s comment is a little harsh, it raises a valid concern, because most vaccines candidates really don’t work. When it comes to HIV immunization, literally all attempts have failed. And there have been many: over the past decade, more than $10 billion has been spent on research and development related to the infection.
This, however, is not the reason why scientists are riled up over Rubsamen’s bold dream. After all, when it comes to HIV prevention, every effort counts. Instead, researchers worry that the crowdfunding model itself threatens to push the Immunity Project into unethical terrain, where its financial ties to institutes and larger funders may ultimately unravel. Because, what is it that the crowdfunding effort asks the public to pay for, really?
"I worry that the skills necessary to run a successful crowdfunding campaign are orthogonal to the skills needed to make a successful therapy," says Max Hodak, co-founder of the Menlo Park, California-based biotechnology company Transcriptic and (by our research) one of the first to use the word “orthogonal” in a sentence. “You can have people who are bad at science but are good at fundraising in public."
Similarly, Abbie Smith, a virologist at Emory University in Atlanta, believes that the project puts public relations before hard science. "It seems like they’re going straight to the public and making appeals to emotion because they don’t have the scientific background to establish themselves in the research community," she said.
Let’s Not Even Bother, Then
So that’s it? Scrap the project, go back to the drawing board, and return all the money? Not quite. Criticism of the idea itself may be perfectly valid; according to the project’s white paper, a formal study is still awaiting publication in a peer-reviewed journal. And as with most grand projects, the odds are against it.
But to say that Rubsamen is praying on the desperate is to misunderstand the nature of crowdfunding. The reason crowdfunding distinguishes itself from glib solicitation is its appeal to a much higher magnitude of public engagement. Its goal is to mobilize a literal crowd capable of throwing money at world problems without hurting their own pocket books at all. Look at the list of contributors: The raised amount does not come from 10 people who are now in debt, but hundreds of people who just have to wait until their next paycheck to get that Twin Peaks DVD, Wagyu cheeseburger, or Game of Thrones figurine they would otherwise have bought.
When you contribute to the Immunity Project (or any other crowdfunded entity, for that matter), you are not pre-ordering a product. What you are buying are the two most simple resources available: Time and space. Time for an idea to grow over, and space for it to grow in. Two resources that, in 2014, come in fairly short supply.
"They have been more successful than others in captivating attention around social media and using novel fundraising approaches," Mitchell Warren, an executive at the non-profit HIV prevention advocacy group AVAC. "I hope that they don’t discourage people if there is not a licensed vaccine at the end of the day."
Qui Vivra Verra.