Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks

Crowd-funding bad science?

I've been mulling over the larger trend of crowd-funding of research, and trying to figure out what exactly is bothering me about it.

Then I saw this criticism of a crowd-funded HIV vaccine project, Immunity Project. It crystallizes the worries I've had, especially when crowd-funding goes large-scale.

Immunity Project has a pretty noble goal. They want to study a subpopulation of people who are naturally able to control HIV (termed HIV controllers), and use that knowledge to create a vaccine which they'll release for free.


The problem is that there is very little chance of this working. The way the immune system works, is that your body will break down viruses into little bits (peptides). Each of those little bits are placed into a special protein (MHC) which has a groove to hold them. This protein/virus bit complex is then "presented" to T cells, and ideally activates them to help kill HIV infected cells.

Previous studies of HIV controllers has already shown that one major reason for their amazing ability is due to unique variations in their genes that encode MHC (Source and source). Until we get gene therapy working, this is not something we're going to be able to confer to other people through a vaccine.

Immunity Project doesn't have much detail about how their vaccine works. From what I can gather, they isolated the parts of the virus HIV controllers tend to target, and are delivering those peptides using a new delivery method of microspheres. Not disclosing the details of their approach is understandable, but the general lack of scientific backing is concerning. Bruce Walker is a major scientist in the HIV controller field (he published the above papers), and according to the Nature article, he was originally cited as on the board of Immunity Project until he asked to be removed and said his inclusion was an error. (Random side note: I get to see him talk today about his research and curious/hoping it'll be about HIV controllers). Many other scientists also express their doubts, and this proposal was already rejected by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (ETA: Ian Cinnamon from Immunity Project has chimed in the comments. He says they never applied for funding from the Gates Foundation. They have contacted Nature to amend their article.)


So is Immunity Project taking advantage of an amazing marketing team, but is ultimately going to waste people's time and money? Or is there a place for these sort of far-fetched plans using private money? I would be more comfortable with the latter, if their website made it more apparent how shaky their venture is. I'm afraid this will just betray public trust in science more when it fails. (Other random side note: HATE their use of hack on their site. Techie buzz word that doesn't really have much meaning biologically).

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