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[BALI] Asian institutions have launched a research initiative to develop an HIV/AIDS vaccine specifically for the region.

The AIDS Vaccine Asia Network (AVAN) brings together researchers from 13 universities and institutions in Australia, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as the WHO.

The creation of AVAN was announced at the AIDS Vaccine 2009 conference in Paris last year and an AVAN Task Force has since been established with a secretariat in China. Its vision and goals are outlined in an article in the current issue of PLoS Medicine.

"An Asia-specific vaccine development plan has a number of benefits: for example, it will focus on the wide range of subtypes and recombinants that are region-specific," David Cooper, director of the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, Sydney, Australia and a member of the network, told SciDev.Net.

Although the initiative is part of global efforts to battle HIV/AIDS, he said, there is an urgent need for a vaccine specific to Asia, where five million people have been infected and 500 million more are considered at risk of infection.

AVAN's objectives include coordinating vaccine efforts among members by sharing ideas and working together, developing a regional strategy to speed up vaccine research and development, and expanding the vaccine pipeline. It will also aim to increase capacity for clinical trials and vaccine manufacture, and to implement ethical and regulatory frameworks.

Cooper said the collaboration will play to the strengths of the institutions and countries involved, and improve capacity building and the transfer of skills between developed and developing countries in the region.

For example, clinical trials and ethical oversight will largely take place in Thailand, where trials of the most promising vaccine candidate so far, RV144, were carried out last year. Training for network members will take place mainly in Australia, Japan and Thailand, and research in Australia, China, India and Malaysia.

"We will be able to pool expertise across countries that may have one field of excellence but not another; or match up laboratory capacity in one country with a research group in a neighbouring country with complementary requirements," Cooper said.

Lisa Beyer, senior vice-president of public affairs at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative told SciDev.Net that AVAN will help propel efforts to devise a workable vaccine, and that it has wide support from other researchers in the field. 

"The effort to develop an AIDS vaccine is a global effort. It's not possible to know in advance where the next scientific advances toward a licensed vaccine will come from, but certainly this effort has benefited and will continue to benefit from the contributions of Asian researchers."

Link to full article in PLoS Medicine