Release of Data on Small Study Suggesting Smallpox Vaccine May Protect Against HIV Infection Ignites Debate
Scientists from George Washington University and George Mason University who recently collaborated on a small study showing that the smallpox vaccine may protect against HIV infection are in an "ethical tiff" over GMU's decision to issue a press release on the study before the data was accepted by a peer-reviewed journal and GMU's application for a patent that did not acknowledge GWU's work, the Washington Post reports (Goldstein, Washington Post, 9/17). Researchers from the two universities studied blood samples from 10 people who received the smallpox vaccination and 10 who did not. HIV was added to each of the blood samples. According to the researchers, HIV either did not grow or grew at substantially reduced levels in the cells of blood samples taken from individuals who had received the smallpox vaccination. Despite the relatively small number of samples involved in the study, the researchers found a statistically significant difference in resistance to HIV infection between the blood cells from the vaccinated subjects and the blood cells from the unvaccinated subjects (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 9/12). GWU scientists said that the study results are "premature" and that they do not yet know whether the results will hold true on a larger scale. The Journal of the American Medical Association this month rejected the study; however, the data are currently being examined by the British peer-reviewed journal the Lancet, according to GMU Provost Peter Stearns. Stearns said that GMU decided to announce the study results because researchers from both universities had already given a briefing for HHS officials. Attorneys for both schools have filed separate patent applications, with GWU's application citing GMU's work and GMU's application not mentioning the other university's efforts.
The GWU researchers said that publicity for the research could cause "misguided" individuals who are at risk for HIV infection to seek smallpox vaccination to gain "illusory" protection against HIV, according to the Post. Peter Hotez, chair of microbiology at GWU, said, "The George Mason people are deliberately creating a situation where people who engage in high-risk behavior that could expose them to HIV might seek out and receive smallpox vaccine, erroneously believing that this might protect them," according to the Post. Stearns said that issuing the release may not have been the "wiser course," adding, "It was a decision made after careful thought, but like many decisions, it could have been made the other way." An unnamed federal health official said, "This [study] is not peer-reviewed stuff in the scientific literature that's subject to scrutiny. The implication that it actually will produce protection against HIV at this point in time is highly speculative." GWU Provost John Williams said that the "key thing" is that the two universities will continue to collaborate because "HIV is a major public health issue that I don't want to get lost." Stearns agreed, adding, "I hope the importance of the scientific possibility isn't overshadowed by the dispute" (Washington Post, 9/17).