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Scientists hunting for an AIDS vaccine may be getting close

Scientists compare the hunt for an AIDS vaccine to the search for the Holy Grail. And for three decades, it has proved to be about as difficult to find.

Since Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier identified HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — in 1983, only three vaccine trials have been completed. The first failed to prevent or control infection. The second also failed, mysteriously increasing infection. The third, completed in 2009, provided protection to only about a third of the people receiving it — but how it did that is still unknown.

Yet, leaders in AIDS vaccine research say they may finally be on the cusp of a period of major discovery leading to a vaccine.

“The past few years have been a turning point,” said Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve probably ever been in my career.”

The optimism stems from recent strides in understanding antibodies — the first weapons the human immune system deploys to fight an infection.

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