Crowd-funded HIV vaccine project sparks debate

HIV News LogoScientists question the tactics behind the Immunity Project’s public campaign.

A tiny coffee shop table can barely contain Reid Rubsamen, whose restless energy nearly propels him out of his chair as he talks about the Immunity Project, his initiative to crowd-source money to make a new HIV vaccine.

The Immunity Project seeks to develop a vaccine that triggers immune cells called T cells to attack HIV (shown here). [Image: THOMAS DEERINCK, NCMIR/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY]
“It is dreaming big,” declares the anaesthesiologist and entrepreneur, whose enthusiasm makes him an effective pitch man for the Immunity Project, based in Oakland, California. Its web videos have helped the effort raise US$402,000 from crowd-funders, and the technology-startup accelerator Y Combinator, based in Mountain View, California, has chipped in another $20,000.

But missing from Rubsamen’s promotional campaign are any HIV researchers or data supporting the effort’s scientific strategy. The unorthodox approach raises the question of whether crowd-funding in Silicon Valley, which tends to be more impressed with technology and marketing than peer-reviewed data, is compatible with medical research — an increasingly pertinent issue as scientists appeal to the public to fund more projects aimed at developing therapies. This is banned by large crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, but medical researchers are finding other means to solicit cash. On 6 February, for instance, San Francisco, California-based evolutionary pharmacologist Ethan Perlstein began a campaign to raise $1.5 million to support his independent lab via AngelList, an investors’ social network, and Rubsamen has hired a digital-marketing firm to run his campaign.

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