updated 7/20/2006 7:23:30 AM ET 2006-07-20T11:23:30

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Wednesday it’s awarding $287 million in grants over five years to create an international network of scientists to speed up the development of an AIDS vaccine.

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The collaboration is critical to making HIV vaccine development more efficient, said Dr. Nicholas Hellmann, acting director of the Gates Foundation’s HIV, TB and reproductive health program.

“Unfortunately, developing an effective HIV vaccine has proven to be tremendously difficult, and despite the committed efforts of many researchers around the world, progress simply has not been fast enough,” he said.

Hellmann acknowledged that an effective vaccine may still be 10 years away.

Each of the 165 investigators in 19 countries who will get money in this series of grants had to agree to share their findings in real time and compare results with others — even if they had been working on competing projects in the past.

Historically, HIV vaccine research mostly has been conducted by small research groups working independently, said Dr. Juliana McElrath, associate head of the infectious diseases program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and a lead researcher on one of the new grants.

“While critical progress has been made, the HIV vaccine field has lacked a shared, focused strategy,” she said.

Five of the grants will pay for facilities to test researchers’ findings. The 11 grants going to research projects are evenly split between groups seeking to find antibodies that will neutralize HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and researchers trying to find a way to elicit cellular immunity. Hellmann said the ultimate vaccine may combine both approaches.

Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, complimented the Gates Foundation on the approach it was taking, but warned against assuming that this is enough money to finish the work.

“Funding for AIDS vaccine research is still short of what we need,” Warren said.

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