Crowdfunded HIV vaccine project draws criticism from scientists

Crowdfunded HIV vaccine developer Immunity Project has gained traction over the past few months, with technology incubator Y Combinator's investment in the initiative sparking mainstream media coverage. The investment raised Immunity Project's profile, but this has brought increased scrutiny of its plans. Not everyone likes what they see.

Immunity Project's CEO, Dr. Reid Rubsamen, in a screen grab from one of the organization's controversial videos.

This week Nature took a look at why Immunity Project has drawn criticism from some in the HIV vaccine research and blogging community. Critics of the initiative highlight the lack of HIV or vaccine experience among the Immunity Project team and a perceived focus on inspiring the public instead of presenting data showing the vaccine works. Immunity Project reports it has submitted animal study work to a peer-reviewed journal, but for now videos created by the nonprofit are a primary source of information for anyone considering investing in the vaccine.

For some people, concerns about the balance between marketing and scientific data are exacerbated by their lack of faith in the science underpinning Immunity Project's vaccine. "They're preying on people who are desperate for a vaccine. The concept they're selling is an old concept that has been shown not to work, and can't work," Oregon Health & Science University immunologist Louis Picker told Nature. Immunity Project is using an algorithm to identify how some people naturally fight HIV. This will form the basis of a vaccine designed to train T-cells to attack HIV-infected cells.

Convincing the public to invest in science requires a different approach from traditional fundraising requests. While successful crowdfunding campaigns are about selling a vision, science tries to be based more on data than emotion. Immunity Project has clearly succeeded in capturing people's attention. Ultimately, though, its success will be judged by the clinical data, and this has a habit of bursting bubbles. "I hope that they don't discourage people if there is not a licensed vaccine at the end of the day," Mitchell Warren, of HIV prevention advocacy group AVAC, said.

- read the Nature article