Vandy HIV Vaccine Program hits milestone

More than 1 million Americans have been diagnosed with the HIV virus since its discovery nearly 30 years ago. Despite worldwide research efforts, an effective vaccine remains elusive, but in Middle Tennessee, a group of dedicated medical practitioners is working diligently to learn more about the disease in hopes of identifying a cure.

The Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Program (VUSM) has remained an active contributor to HIV vaccine research since its inception in 1988. The program, staffed by a six-member team of doctors and nurses, recently notched its 1,000th participant. According to program coordinator Kyle Rybczyk, RN, FNP, VUSM ranks as one of the leading enrolling sites in the country and that 5,000 people have now been screened since VSUM began.

“We have very strong numbers, even compared to major metropolitan areas such as New York, Seattle, San Francisco and many other cities,” he said.

In 1999 the program joined an international collaboration, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN), a group of scientists and educators searching for an effective and safe HIV vaccine, which tied it even more closely into national and international efforts.

“We are not doing studies in some isolated place. There is a lot of oversight, including from the FDA, the National Institutes of Health and our own advisory board. Everything is taken under rigorous review and we undergo continuous monitoring,” Rybczyk said.

Volunteers in the studies are healthy, uninfected men and women between 18 and 50 years old. Rybczyk says that the volunteer pool is equally divided in regards to gender and sexual orientation. At this time, the majority of program members are Caucasian, and he encourages increased participation from minority groups in the future.

These ongoing vaccine trials are vital to HIV research and remain a key component in promoting awareness and education in the Middle Tennessee area. This spring the HVTN designed an aggressive media campaign on numerous social networking sites in an effort to target potential participants, especially those who may have concerns about testing procedures.

“One of the most common misconceptions is that volunteers could get HIV from the vaccine. We can guarantee there is zero chance of infection,” Rybczyk said.

The milestone member of the study, Jonathon Attridge, first heard about the program through his girlfriend. Though Attridge has no personal connection to the disease, he understood the importance of HIV research.

“We felt we needed to do our part to help find a cure. I know there's a huge problem out there, but there's hope,” he said.

According to the VUSM website, most studies last take place over a period of 12-15 months. Vaccination visits are about 45 minutes long and there are usually three or four throughout the trial. Attridge stressed the fact that the VUSM staff eased him through the process, answering any questions about vaccine testing and the HIV epidemic.

Rybczyk, who has worked in vaccine testing for 18 years, says his involvement with the cause continues to be a rewarding experience.

“It's very fulfilling for me; it's intellectually stimulating and wonderful to give back in this way,” he said.

Attridge echoed those sentiments.

“I may not be what people might assume when they think of volunteers; I'm not a high-risk candidate. But if you can fit the criteria, I would tell anyone to do it. It's a motivating and reassuring experience to be able to help,” he said.

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