Reports of a study into HIV elite controllers has sparked an advocate for people living with AIDS to call for more scientific freedom and financial security to assist scientists in their search for a vaccine.

Bill Whittaker from the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS has called for greater security for scientists, to allow for freer experimental research like the elite controller research being conducted by the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research.

Elite controllers are a small proportion of the HIV population who have a natural ability to suppress the infection without the use of drugs. Making up just 0.3 per cent of people living with HIV, they are of key interest to scientists looking for a vaccine. Research looking into why their bodies are capable of fighting off the disease is still an extremely experimental field with few certainties known.

Whittaker said the difficulty for scientists working in the HIV sector is the need to rely on grants, which inhibits free exploration of the sort needed to uncover the key to elite controllers’ resistance.

We have known about this group of patients for quite a while in Australia, since the early 80s in fact, after a group of people were infected after a blood transfusion, he said.

They are a very interesting group of people to look at in the sense of trying to discover a vaccine. To allow that though, we really need to get back to scientific basics, to start looking again to fully understand HIV and its relationship with the immune system and how it is that some people seem to be resistant.

The thing that worries me though is that there is too much focus on competitive grants in Australia. All researchers apply for these grants and they need to, in some ways, show that they know the answer before they’re given the money, which is really different to how scientists have traditionally worked.

Since the time of Madame Curie scientists have observed things and gone off to research and explore a hunch. That is not happening right now and it is important that HIV researchers are given the ability to do more of that serendipitous research.

We need to make sure that there is a dedicated space set up to allow for scientists to do that. There also needs to be more financial security. Research doesn’t just happen over a few months, it’s an ongoing thing and if there’s no security about where the money is coming from, we’re not going to be attracting the best people or encouraging collaboration with leading international scientists.

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