A group of researchers working in collaboration with Microsoft has developed a research platform which is drawing on Big Data and crowdfunding to speed up research to combat AIDS.

Anti-spam software inspires free vaccine to fight AIDS

Founded by a team of scientists from the US universities of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT and backed by a number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, San Francisco-based Immunity Project is aiming to make a vaccine to stop the HIV virus turning into AIDS in human beings and is using crowdsourcing to raise funds. The project founders are looking to raise $482,000 dollars for the final experiment before clinical trials can begin, with a view to production and widespread free-of-charge distribution of the vaccine in 2016.

Using Big Data analysis to speed up vaccine development

The project has just been admitted into the top startup incubator, California-based Y Combinator. To build the vaccine, the Immunity Project turned to a machine learning algorithm that scanned blood samples from people who have an inborn immunity to HIV, known as‘HIV controllers’. It learned exactly what aspects of the HIV their immune system successfully targets, and those targets are being used to develop an anti-AIDS vaccine for people who are already infected with the virus. The algorithm was developed in collaboration with the Microsoft eScience research laboratory, based on work on anti-spam software, since it appears to be the case that the myriad signals sent by immune systems actually resemble a variable fluctuating flow of data with similar properties. The tool was developed by Microsoft principal researcher Dr David Heckerman and his team.

Mobilizing crowdsourcing

To help drive the project forward, the developers have now launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance the final experiment, which will involve tests on human blood, before moving on to large-scale human clinical trials. On the whole this project approach has some apparent advantages over the traditional business models of the pharmaceutical industry. The initiative offers a new way of developing vaccines by drawing on anonymous metabolic data and collaborative funding.  The next stage will be the clinical trials needed to obtain authorization from the US Food & Drug Administration and medicine approvals bodies in countries where AIDS is rife today. The plan is that once the vaccine is in production, it will be distributed free-of-charge in the form of a nasal spray, this being a very low-cost production process. The Immunity Project team are also hoping that this drug development experiment will create a precedent that will ultimately lead to radical changes in pharmaceutical development, in terms of both basic research and financing methods.


By Thomas Meyer
Journalist, Business Analyst