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Crowdfunding of an HIV Vaccine Brings Hope and Skepticism

Can HIV be “controlled” by a vaccine? That’s the hope of one nonprofit organization, who successfully raised crowdfunding cash. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

We have recently discussed here how crowdfunding – donations from the general public in support of a cause, idea, or invention – has caught the attention of scientists seeking financial backing in an era of tight budgets. The brave new world of crowdfunding in science raises questions that defy easy answers. What is essential to lead a successful crowdfunding campaign? Is it possible to win the hearts and minds of laypeople AND impress one’s scientific peers?

A case in point is the recent crowdfunding campaign by the nonprofit corporation Immunity Project. The organization has noted that about 1 out of 300 people are HIV “controllers”, meaning that, although they might wind up with a low level of HIV, the virus may be kept in check. The Immunity Project hopes to come out with a vaccine that would endow everyone with the same immunity enjoyed by the controllers. The organization hopes to have a vaccine ready in 2016, and it would be provided at no charge. The money it sought was for a final experiment before Phase I clinical testing.

Some of the reaction from the scientific community, however, has been more than a little critical:

The concept they’re selling is an old concept that has been shown not to work, and it can’t work.1

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.1

One point that has raised a number of eyebrows is the lack of publications that support the organization’s approach. CEO Reid Rubsamen has reported that an article has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. Rubsamen was the host of an “Ask Me Anything” segment on the social networking service Reddit. Hundreds of comments and questions poured in. Some people expressed doubts and concerns. But many others articulated their enthusiasm, even if they were not experts themselves:

I donated. I have no idea if what you’re doing is feasible or not, but it looks to me like you’re taking a brand new (or at least uncommon) approach to medical research, and that excites me.2

A few held contempt for established institutions and commended Immunity Project’s undertaking as a humanitarian alternative:

It restores some of my faith in humanity knowing that there are people like you out there. Pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil corporations out there. Where they are looking for a vaccine only to provide to the wealthiest of nations and make billions in profits, your team is trying to actually provide a service to humanity.2

In Reddit and elsewhere, there have been enough fans that Immunity Project was able to meet its crowdfunding goal of $462,000. (Four people individually donated $50,000.) This amount is not particularly a king’s ransom in science dollars, and the group has needed to make every dollar count, including finding a discounted flow cytometer. (Flow cytometry, with many vendors offering their services through Scientist, is widely applied to vaccine research.)

Regardless of whether Immunity Project succeeds or not, it is the nature of research that many, if not most, scientific projects supported by crowdfunding will not pan out. Will that mean that supporters will grow disillusioned and snap their wallets shut? Or is the excitement of backing a venture at the edge of knowledge enough for donors to come back again and again? This is one experiment whose results are not yet in.

  1. Hayden, E.C. (2014) Crowd-funded HIV vaccine project sparks debate. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2014.14675