Crowd funded HIV vaccine–more junk science!

Credit: FDA
Credit: FDA

Since humans were first able to communicate with one another, there probably was someone there trying to sell  a great new medical advancement. The Stone Age Grok probably would sell you an herbal cure for your broken leg that would cost two goats and a flagon of Stone Age mead. Not being a psychiatrist, and not playing one on the internet, I can only speculate that humans are always searching for the easy cure, the easy treatment, and there are other humans ready to fulfill that market need with magical beliefs. 

And if you think that things have changed since Grok, the Stone Age Big Herbal salesmen, was around, you’d be wrong. Instead of goats, it’s money. And instead of cures for broken legs, it’s AIDS vaccines.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about a crowdfunded company, Immunity Project, that claims it had developed a paradigm-shifting new HIV/AIDS vaccine, that they will sell for free. To put it lightly, I was highly skeptical, not only of the the science behind this magical vaccine, but also of their business strategy, which would require them to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to sell the vaccine at $0. The principals of the company very politely hit back at me on Twitter and on the comments section of the original article, asking me and others to read their white paper (pdf), which appears to be nothing more than an advertising piece about their company and their ideas.

Immunity Project is relying upon crowd funding (or sometimes called crowd sourcing) to raise startup (or angel) money to get their company going. This money is raised online from a broad community of “investors” who contribute usually smaller amounts of money than would be a big time investor (corporate or private capital). Their goal is to raise enough money to get the concept into clinical trials and eventually to sell it for free.

Evidently, Immunity Project (IP) wants to invent a vaccine that mimics a response called the “HIV controller” or more commonly known as long-term nonprogressor. This condition is observed in about 1 in 300 HIV infected individuals. Essentially, these individuals become infected by HIV, but never develop AIDS, and can go decades without exhibiting any symptoms of AIDS. No, they don’t eat better food or get more sunshine. No, they don’t take a secret supplement to prevent progression into AIDS. It’s just random chance.

According to the scientific consensus, nonprogressors have gene mutations, receptor mutations, mitochondrial DNA mutations, or some other genetic variance that cause the individual to more aggressively attack the HIV pathogen. So, how is Immunity Project going to induce this not well understood condition with a vaccine? Is this vaccine going to induce a mutation? Is this vaccine going to somehow force the body to act like a controller through some radical new biotechnology? Well, that’s why there’s peer-reviewed research, which gives us an opportunity to review the science and begin the process of skeptically analyzing the methods, data, analysis and conclusions

It wasn’t just me, but other scientists, ones with actual credentials in AIDS vaccine research, also appeared to be highly skeptical. For example, one of those real AIDS researchers, Dr. Abbie Smith, said the following about developing a vaccine for HIV non-progression:

I am an HIV vaccine researcher, and I only have a vague guess as to what they are proposing. I’m guessing (GUESSING) they want to generate a CTL response (killer T-cell response of typical vaccines). Instead of producing the proteins endogenously and having those proteins induce a CTL response, they appear to want to deliver the peptides. I have a number of major issues with this, even as a casual CTL researcher (side project I did for an HLA lab), I can only imagine the major players in the CTL side of HIV World have even more concerns. I can delve into these if readers want to know.

Because there is no clear research proposal available, I wonder if science is ‘not the point’. Average Joes and Janes are potential donors, not scientists. Scientists have apparently already evaluated this research and said ‘No’, so now this group is crowdsourcing. Science is there for a ‘GEE WIZ MAGIC!’ factor (again, watch the video). HIV controllers are not magic. Some people infected with HIV-1 are able to control infection better than others (aka not progress to AIDS as fast as others). This is due to a multitude of reasons, but one of the strongest correlates to ‘controller’ vs ‘non-controller’ is what your genetics looks like. But just because you have a ‘protective’ allele it does not mean you arent going to progress to AIDS. Its dumb luck, not magic. And you cant alter someones HLA allele with peptides. God please dont get me started on HIV and HLA.

Nevertheless, despite all of the speculation, there is one simple fact. Immunity Project has yet to provide anyone with peer-reviewed papers that document how their so-called vaccine would work in any model, animal, human, cell culture, anything. Without scientific evidence, the best we can do is speculate, based on what we know of how HIV is transmitted, and how the immune system reacts to the virus. If there is some magical way of blocking it, unknown to all of science, then it behooves Immunity Project to bring it forward.

But skepticism is coming to the forefront in evaluating Immunity Project’s ideas. Nature News, the news service of one of the most prestigious scientific journals, Nature, has recently published an article highly skeptical of Immunity Project. Several key points:

  • Immunity project has raised over US$400,000 without a single peer-reviewed paper showing its ideas are sound. None. According to the article, “But missing from Rubsamen’s (founder of the project) 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 project would be laughed out of most venture capital company’s offices, who only invest when they see some good science. Yes, venture capitalists take risks, but they don’t make dumb investments.
  • “I worry that the skills necessary to run a successful crowd-funding campaign are orthogonal to the skills needed to make a successful therapy,” says Max Hodak, co-founder of the Menlo Park, California-based biotechnology company Transcriptic, which raised $1.2 million of its $4.1 million in funding on AngelList. “You can have people who are bad at science but are good at fundraising in public.” Because Immunity Project has some lovely videos, and an outstanding website.
  • Two actual HIV researchers who were once associated with the project, Bruce Walker, one of the world’s leading researchers in HIV vaccines and Salim Abdool Karim, a close associate of Dr. Walker, and also one of the world’s leading researchers in AIDS prevention, have requested to have their names stricken from any materials associated with Immunity Project. 
  • The article says that a consensus of science in this area states that “controllers quash HIV in part thanks to their genetic make-up, which cannot be duplicated in non-controllers. That would make it impossible for a non-controller to completely mimic a controller’s T-cell response.” Dr. Abbie Smith said the same thing. Controllers are simply a result of a random genetic mutation that cannot be replicated, unless we were to somehow change the genetics of every single individual who got this “vaccine.” You can’t. Only anti-GMO cultists believe that changing human genes is that easy.

I still don’t know if Immunity Project is a scam or not. But they have nothing, and they are taking money from people who seem to be scientifically immature and gullible to any new idea about preventing AIDS. Candidly, I would love to be associated with a group that was actually developing a real innovative and working vaccine against AIDS. I would love to develop a business model that might actually provide the vaccine for free for those who can’t afford it (I would make Americans and Europeans pay a high price for the vaccine, but give it away to anyone in the world who couldn’t afford it). But Immunity Project’s business model would make a first year MBA student laugh hysterically, and it’s scientific research is bereft the one thing that I personally demand of science–evidence. And if you’re going to take people’s money, that evidence must be immense, subject to excessive levels of scrutiny, and repeated by many other labs. And then I want to see real clinical trials.

Reid Rusamen and Immunity Project are really good at social media and advertising. The juries are still out on their science, but right now, the scientific community is leaning strongly against them. And don’t think a non-peer reviewed amateur “white paper” is at all convincing. When I see a white paper, I immediately know something is being hidden because a peer-reviewed paper would have been offered first.

It’s amusing that they make passive aggressive attacks on Big Pharma,

Furthermore, private equity investors don’t like HIV vaccine plays because the real money in HIV is in developing new lifelong therapies that people living with HIV will have to take for the rest of their lives. Big science controls most of the rest of the funding that is available, and our breakthrough, IT-based approach to HIV vaccine development is still too early to resonate through the old boys funding network.

Yet Immunity Project publishes a White Paper which is right out of the Big Pharma Marketing Playbook. Too ironic for words.

If you want to invest in this company because you think they are trying to do something new and innovative, be my guest. But beware, they aren’t doing anything new and innovative, they aren’t providing us with anything that makes us even slightly inclined towards the scientific possibilities of their ideas. Right now, there is no rational scientific hypothesis that would allow us to think that there’s a way to create a controller type of genotype to block AIDS. If they could, it would be groundbreaking. The problem is that they’ve shown nothing (and by nothing, I mean zero) that establishes even the possibility that they know of a way to create a controller out of nothing. Other than magic.

Right now, they’re just the modern world’s version of Grok. 

Key citations:

The Original Skeptical Raptor on twitterThe Original Skeptical Raptor on facebookThe Original Skeptical Raptor on email2
The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!
  • Tyler J Nicholas

    I am here to thank Dr Okwyzil,, the powerful spell caster that rescue me from HIV AIDS. I was diagnosed of this disease in the year 20145,and because of this, i was very unhappy with my life, and i went into research on how i can get cured, i contacted alot of spell casters and none of them could help me rather than scammed me and took away my money without helping me. All this period of my life, i was sad and unhappy so one day as i was in the internet a decided to sign in a friend focebook, only for me to see was a testimony of a lady on how she was helped by Dr Okwyzil,, so i was confused to contact him at the moment because i didn’t want to be scammed again but after one week, i decided to contact him, so when i contacted him, he assure me that he will help me and i told him that many spell casters has also told me this but they all scammed me, he told me not to worry that he is going to help me, So i believe in him because all i wanted was to be cured, so he prepared a healing spell for me and told me to wait for just 2day , i went to the hospital for test and to me happiness the test stated that i was cured from the disease.. This gladdens my heart and everybody in the hospital was surprised even the Medical Doctor, So viewers Dr Okwyzil,, is a God Gifted man and can help you to cure all types of sickness like HIV AIDS, CANCER, PILE, KIDNEY PROBLEM, SYPHILIS, DIABETES and lot’s more. You can contact him through his email on or . For more details you call reach me on my:+2349030387805

  • Tyler J Nicholas

    I was been suffering hard ship from HIV/AIDS since 9yrs now,
    and i happen to have 2 kids for my husband, and now we cannot proceed to
    have another kids all because of my disease and now i have do all what a
    human like i and my husband can do just to get my disease healed, i
    have went to several places to seek for help not even one person could
    ever help, until i melt a comment on the daily news paper that was
    commented by Miss Marilyn about how this powerful traditional doctor
    help her get cured of the disease (HIV-AIDS) ” my fellow beloved” i
    firstly taught having a help from a spiritual traditional healer was a
    wrong idea, but i think of these, will i continue to stress on these
    disease all day when i have someone to help me save my life?” so i
    gather all my faiths and put in all interest to contact him through his
    Email address at , so after i have mailed
    him of helping get my disease cured, i respond to me fast as possible
    that i should not be afraid, that he is a truthful and powerful doctor
    which i firstly claimed him to be. So after all set has been done, he
    promise me that i will be healed but on a condition that i provide him
    some items and obeyed all his oracle said. I did all by accepting his
    oracle fact and only to see that the following week Dr Okwyzil, mail me
    on my mail box that my work is successfully done with his powers, i was
    first shocked and later arise to be the happiest woman on earth after i
    have concluded my final test on the hospital by my doctor that i am now
    HIV- Negative. My papers for check are with me and now i am happy and
    glad for his miraculous help and power.With these i must to everyone who
    might seek for any help, either for HIV cure or much more to contact
    him now at these following email now,Email: ” sir thank you so much for your
    immediate cure of my disease, i must say for curing my disease, i owe
    you in return. Thanks and be blessed sir.My name is hope His Email
    address . or you can contact his phone

  • patrick stella

    My Name is Deborah Ramos from UNITED KINGDOM, i am here to give my testimony about a doctor who help me in my life. I was infected with HIV virus in the 2012,i went to many hospitals,churches for cure but there was no solution out, so I was thinking how can I get a solution out so that i cannot loose my life, I lost everything I have my husband run away from me and also took my children along because of my sickness. One day I was in the river side thinking the next step to take if it is to jump into the river so that I can loose my life totally or just think where I can go to get solution. so a lady walk to me telling me why am I so sad and i open up all to him telling her my stories, she told me that she can help me out that’s the reason she normally come here to help people so that thy can be cured because she was into this problem before, she introduce me to a doctor who cast spells on people and gave me he number and email so i called him and also email him. He told me all the things I need to provide and also give me instructions to take, which I followed properly. Before I knew what is happening he called me and told me that i should go for medical check up, called Dr Cuba for your solutions now at add him on watsapp +2347038965900

  • hivcure

    i am from sudan, I wish to share the testimony of life experience with the general public about what DR SAGO has just done for me, this Dr has just brought back my Lost hope to me with his great powers, I was infected with HIV/AIDS during my youth camp in Texas. i never notice it until I meet this man JAMES . We both love each other and we planned to get married. I Was surprise when we went for HIV/AIDS test, i was HIV/AIDS positive. The man was so disappointed in me, I wanted to kill myself, but a friend of mine told me not to worry that I still have life to live. She ask me one day to followed her to the cyber cafe, when we got there, I decided search for the best way to live with HIV/AID, that was when i saw a testimonies from Sullivan on how a great priest healed her of HIV/AIDS. i decided to email the man, then you won’t believe this when i Contacted this DR of my problems, he told me what I needed to do and how to do it, him and he gave me 6days to go back for the test again, I went back to the same hospital and have the same test, but the HIV/AIDS positive change to negative. I didn’t believed the doctor’s report, I went to another hospital, the same result, then i shouted out in tears cause i never believe that this was true today i am HIV negative Dr Sago gave me another second chance to life you can reach him his ways may sound weird but worked for me i am grateful to him he can help you here is his address i wish luck just as mine

    Jennifer mwede

  • hiv cure

    PATRICIA JONSON, i want to give almighty praise to DR OLUBAOLUBA who help me to cure my HIV/AID, please help me to give thanks to him he is a great man who God send from heaven to save people’s life, when i contacted this deadly virus i thought that was the end of the world for me little did i know that there is a man called DR OLUBAOLUBA OF AFRICA who has made a breakthrough in the cure of HIV and cancer cure with herbs when i confided in a friend here in south Africa he told me about this man called DR OLUBAOLUBA and how he cured the mum and dad of HIV after two years of living with this deadly diseases he told me of the cost and procedure i felt it was worth a try after i have been spending so much in the drugs to make me live like every normal human being so i contacted DR OLUBAOLUBA and did as he commanded without missing words he did all he needed to do and sent me the herbs here in south Africa i took it as he directed it was exactly seven days as DR OLUBAOLUBA has spoken when he emailed me and told me to go for a check up again and i went to my greatest surprise it was negative i felt it was a dream so i went to three different hospital and it was still negative then i cried out in a loud voice and people gathered in the hospital and i told them my story in tears how this man called DR OLUBAOLUBA have saved my life and they started demanding for his mail to contact him it was only last week my friend Vanessa who was HIV positive came back from visiting DR OLUBAOLUBA as a healthy woman i told her about DR OLUBAOLUBA you can reach him through his emai address or +2348050354815 he never fails hold on my friend dont cry no more when our helper is here i believe in him he am sure you will be lucky as i am too just email him on he is a savior of life