A California nonprofit is crowdfunding its tech-enabled HIV vaccine project

It is now 25 years since the first World AIDS Day. Although patient outcomes have improved significantly over that time, the long-sought-after vaccine remains elusive. As the world commemorated the event this week, two very different projects outlined their plans to combat the virus.

While one of the projects is a fairly typical, government-backed research push, the other is more unusual. A nonprofit is trying to use a machine-learning algorithm approach similar to that seen in spam filters to develop an HIV vaccine, and is crowdsourcing funding of the initiative. The Immunity Project team thinks they can succeed where the likes of Merck ($MRK) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have so far failed by honing in on why 1% of those infected with HIV never show AIDS symptoms.

Studies of the genetics of this 1% of people--known as "elite controllers"--have given researchers plenty of data to work with, but finding vaccine targets has proved difficult. Now though, Dr. David Heckerman has applied the machine-learning skills he used to develop Microsoft's ($MSFT) spam filter to identifying targets on the virus. This led to a focus on synthetically engineered epitopes that mirror those found in "elite controllers." By pairing the epitopes with T cells, the team thinks it can help everyone fight the virus.

"This could be therapeutic and prophylactic [and] may have profound applications for HIV prevention," Dr. Reid Rubsamen, director of the Immunity Project and CEO of medical device business Flow Pharma, told San Francisco Business Times. Rubsamen wants to start Phase I trials in the U.S. and Africa next year, and then enter Phase II in 2015. The team is trying to raise $25 million to fund development, but its plans to distribute the vaccine for free limit its appeal to venture capitalists.

Instead of looking to these traditional sources of biotech funding, the Immunity Project is crowdsourcing the cash. Gift card app developer Gyft is one of the contributors. In December, Gyft will donate up to 100% of profits from gift card sales to the Immunity Project in a bid to raise $1 million. "We only need $25 million to do this. We think we can raise that in this very nontraditional way and not worry about the economic complexities to really get this out there and test it quickly," Rubsamen said.

The other initiative unveiled this week already has significantly more cash. NIH has committed an extra $100 million to finding a cure for AIDS. Clinical development of therapeutic vaccines is one planned use of the cash.

- read the SF Business Times feature
- here's the NIH release