When I was in school, HIV/AIDS education was part of the health curriculum. I sat with my middle-, and then, high-school classmates and we learned about AIDS prevention, wore red ribbons, watched the made-for-TV movie The Ryan White Story, and attended school-wide AIDS awareness presentations by people living with HIV. All the time knowing scientists were hard at work finding a cure.
The recent news that Roche decided to end its HIV research program came as a surprise. The company said last week in an email to AIDS activists that it will discontinue the R&D program because its current candidates do not offer improvements over existing drugs, and that it will reassign its HIV research scientists to other projects. The company also said in the memo it “decided to refocus our resources within virology on diseases in which we can deliver substantial improvements over existing medications.” Roche stressed it will continue to manufacture its current HIV drugs, “Fuzeon,” “Viracept,” and “Invirase,” and diagnostics.
Peter Staley, founder of AIDSmeds.com, said in a Reuters report, “It is disappointing that there is one less big pharmaceutical company in this field.” And added, “I don’t think it’s a sign of a serious problem in pharma’s commitment.”
But AIDS research is slowing. The announcement of the failure of Merck’s AIDS vaccine in September 2007 was a blow to the research community. In a recent editorial, titled “Requiem for a Vaccine,” PharmTech’s Editor-in-Chief Michelle Hoffman wrote, “After more than 20 years of searching, the AIDS research community is raising something of a white flag on the search for a prophylactic vaccine.” The general sentiment of the research community is that more basic research is needed before products are developed.
The momentum of AIDS research is fizzling out, but could public support and awareness also be dwindling? A post on PharmExecBlog questions whether HIV is being ignored. The blog reported in March that Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, criticized the CDC for failing to emphasize a 48% increase of HIV/AIDS cases from 2005 to 2006 in its HIV AIDS Surveillance Report. The CDC said the increase is due to better methods of collecting data, but Weinstein argues that this doesn’t matter because the number of people who need treatment has increased. The post also reviews a March episode of South Park in which AIDS is passé next to cancer.
With regard to Roche’s decision to exit HIV research, I understand the challenges of producing new products and the business decisions that any company must make. But the part of me that grew up believing anything is possible, that this disease wouldn’t beat us, and that one day kids wouldn’t have to see their teachers so afraid for them, feels a little let down to see Roche, or anyone, give up.