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Fast Company

If The Immunity Project Crowdfunds This Synthetic AIDS Vaccine, They'll Offer It Free To Everyone

The Y Combinator-backed project discovered how to mimic natural immunity to HIV. Now it's trying to raise $482,000 in 30 days to prove it works.

What happens when you combine Microsoft e-Science machine learning, Harvard thinking, and a new medical device to tackle HIV-AIDS? The Immunity Project, a not-for-profit company developing the first ever synthetic HIV vaccine.

The Immunity Project’s work is based on the discovery that there are people born with a natural immunity to HIV. After identifying these "HIV controllers" in the population, the team applied machine learning to reverse-engineer the biological processes HIV controllers use to defeat the virus, mimicking natural immunity.

They’ve developed a vaccine prototype and completed preliminary laboratory testing. And today, they went live with a crowdfunding campaign to support a demonstration aimed to prove the vaccine can successfully immunize human blood. It's the last step before they begin Phase 1 human clinical trials with the FDA. Their goal is to give the vaccine away to the world, for free.

In order to complete this experiment by the end of March of this year, they need to raise $482,000 in the next 30 days. If successful, this will help solve a global problem that is still epidemic. AIDS kills nearly 5,000 people a day. While there are several contenders in the race to create a successful HIV vaccine, this one has an excellent shot at working. It's also safer for candidates than vaccines made with killed viruses or live viruses. It requires no refrigeration and is designed to be delivered via nasal inhaler, solving distribution challenges in the countries with the highest HIV infection rates.

Dr. Reid Rubsamen alongside other Immunity Project team members.

The vaccine was originally developed in a partnership between Dr. Bruce Walker from Harvard, Dr. David Heckerman, inventor of the spam filter and AAAI fellow and machine learning/artificial intelligence scientist at Microsoft e-Science Research, and Dr. Reid Rubsamen, drug delivery system expert and founder of Flow Pharma. The project was billed as a great example of multi-disciplinary innovation. Apparently, Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator agreed—on January 6, Immunity Project became part of the Winter 2014 Y Combinator class. According to partner Sam Altman, "This is certainly a new sort of company for us, but it's the kind of crazy idea we like."

"Imagine a world where vaccines are developed for a tiny fraction of the big pharma cost and given away for free to everyone who needs them," says Altman. "We thought that work done by Microsoft Research that underlies this was really interesting, and we're always interested in areas where software can change how things are done. Technology means doing more with less; this is an extreme example. I spent a fair amount of time with this group during their application process and am personally donating both money and blood."

[Photos courtesy of Immunity]