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Dangerous Mis-information About a Federally Funded HIV Vaccine Trial

By Caleph B. Wilson

Since, my days as a graduate student, family, friends and strangers have asked me about the validity of biomedical science reports in the media.  Many articles and blogs are accurate; however, sometimes inaccurate information is put forward.  In those instances, I attempt to help the questioner understand why the information is incorrect.

Below is a case of a website getting the information HORRIBLY WRONG!

A Facebook friend shared a blog post that stated that a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded HIV vaccine trial “gave 41 people HIV.”  As expected a post like that got my attention immediately!  So, my first question was:  Why haven’t I heard of this before?  It seems like major news because of the safety concern.  This would have been alarming news in the HIV research community.

So, as usual I navigated to the shared webpage and began to read.  After reading the post, I did a Google search for the name of the trial: HVTN 500.  The sixth post was a press release from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), the NIH branch that funded the study.

While reading the NIAID press release, I was wondering when I would get to the part discussing the new HIV infections.  The information was in the fourth paragraph.  This is what I said:

Overall in the study from the day of enrollment through the month 24 study visit, a total of 41 cases of HIV infection occurred in the volunteers who received the investigational vaccine regimen and 30 cases of HIV infection occurred among the placebo vaccine recipients.”

This is what the above quoted text means.  Yes, participants that receive placebo or the vaccine contracted HIV.  However, the sentence does not indicate that the vaccine or placebo was the source of the new HIV infections.  What the press release is pointing out is that the vaccine was not effective enough to justify continuing to spend tax payer dollars on it.  Simply put, scientist and physicians determined that a careful public health research project did not work and decided to stop it.  This is how science works.

Given the misleading information in the website posted by my Facebook friend, I decided to respond to the post and point out why it was dangerous misinformation.  This is how I determined that the information on the website was incorrect:

1.)    The website did not list or link to the group that did the study

This is a major red flag.  Anytime a website cannot point me to facts, I get concerned.  As a scientist, I always challenge myself to read the sources.  Creditable information will invites critical review.  This webpage was making me work to find information rather than pointing me to it.  Especially given, that it claimed that a federally funded clinical trial was responsible for spreading HIV, I wanted to read this information.

2.)    No other media or science outlets came to the same conclusion as the shared webpage

News like this warrants independent verification from multiple sources.  It is hard to believe that media outlets would not consider it to be major news that an NIH sponsored trial was spreading HIV.  If this would true, it would be inescapable.

3.)    Carefully reading the both the NIH press release, the blog post and linked information in each

Anyone can read the available information and make a conclusion based on what is there.  It only requires a working knowledge of what is presented. In this case, there is a major discrepancy between what the NIAID has to say and what the website stated about the HIV vaccine trial.  I invite you to read the press release, blog post and sited sources to reach your own conclusion.  Also, search the internet, PubMed and other sources.  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section of this post.

Above all, I am pointing out that each of us has a responsibility to insure that we effectively evaluate information that we consume.  Not doing so, will result in spread information that may not be accurate.  The danger in the case above is that success in combating HIV requires informed volunteers.  Mis-information or inaccurate media reports may prevent advancements in battling HIV.

Scientist Addresses Misconception That His Lab Has Used Competent HIV to Cure Cancer

NOTE:  The open letter below was originally published on Facebook Fan Page of Ray Flores and reprinted with Dr. Posey’s permission.

By Avery Posey, Jr

I just responded to the author of an article from Upworthy that is circulating the web through social media. The article is titled “Doctors Take A Long Shot And Inject HIV Into Dying Girl. The Reason Why Will Amaze You.” The media has a tendency to sensationalize the news and we often find ourselves believing what we read, so I want to clarify the assertion made by this article because I find the title to be misleading and troublesome.

It is true that the therapy developed in my lab that has treated and cured leukemia in approximately 12 patients. However, it is not entirely true that this treatment is done with HIV. The truth is that we only use parts of the HIV virus that are necessary to insert DNA into other cells (like T cells in this case). This virus is only able to insert into a cell once, cannot replicate, and does not inactivate patient CD4 cells like HIV does. The patient is not HIV+ after therapy.

The real work of this cure is the DNA that we insert into the patient T cells. It is a special and novel gene that does not exist in nature. The new gene enables the T cells to now find and kill the patient’s tumor cells based on a molecule they can now see on the surface of those tumor cells. This is why the therapy works. It has nothing to do with the use of parts of the HIV virus.

As a member of an ethnic community that has been preyed upon by the medical community, I find it terrible to suggest that any doctor would intentionally infect someone with HIV. No medical professional would use HIV to treat anyone; Tuskegee shall never be repeated.

As a member of a social community that has been victimized by HIV and still deals with the stigma of HIV, I am disturbed by the possibilities that could arise from articles with such sensational titles. HIV does not cure cancer.

Thank you for allowing me to clarify misconceptions reported and circulating the web. Please share this and help dispel the rumors if possible. If anyone is interested in learning more, they are welcome to inbox me.

Avery D. Posey, Jr., Ph.D.

This commentary is not written on the behalf of any company or institution. The article is linked.

NOTE:  The above open letter is a re-post of a social media response from Dr. Posey

Connecting scientist mentors with students who have the desire to learn

By Caleph B. Wilson

Every scientist has three key experiences that helped them on the road to a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM: 1) being born with a desire to learn; 2) having opportunity to apply STEM principles; and 3) guidance from an effective mentor. The desire to learn started early in our lives, and those of us who were lucky began to receive guidance while we were in school. As we navigated the various stages of our careers, all three experiences built upon each other. We scientists know the value of mentoring and providing opportunities to others. However, without a road map to community engagement, finding out how to give back to the community can be difficult…

Read entire post at Planetary.org click here.

Kiera Wilmot Avoids Prison, But Now What?

By Caleph B. Wilson

The initial thought behind ‘zero tolerance’ policies in schools was  that children with consistent discipline issues would make up most suspensions.  However, ‘model students’ can also become entangled in mandatory school punishments.

On April 22, 2013, 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot was expelled from her South Florida high school for creating small ‘explosive’ by mixing household chemicals and a small wad of aluminum foil.  Further, Florida’s state attorney charged her with felonies equal to if she had discharged a firearm and a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ on school property.  Interestingly, Wilmot’s principal Ron Pritchard was disturbed by the harshness of the school district’s punishment…

Read entire post at Ebony.com click here.

Breast Cancer Prevention and Angelina Jolie: A Story of Empowerment and Access

By Caleph B. Wilson

Today Angelina Jolie announced that she had a double mastectomy because of a mutation in her copy of the BRCA1 gene.

This deserves attention for everyone especially women of color.  Although, Jolie had the BRCA1 mutation she has income, access and/or insurance to have this preventative procedure.  (Information on BRAC1/2:  http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/BRCA) For too many women gene testing and preventative surgery is out of reach.  Moreover, women of color have breast cancer related surgery at a delayed rate which increases the rate of death.  Transferring Jolie’s ‘empowered’ feeling to others would hopefully help breast cancer survival rates.

Also, let’s note that the US Supreme Court is listing to arguments over patents for BRCA.   This case will determine if access to life saving tests will be in reach for everyone.  The other issue is related to companies or research institution owning genes of patients.  If they can patients have to argue their cut of any money generated.  I wonder what Jolie’s stance on this is.

As with most things, it is great that a celebrity face has been associated with a disease.  Now attention will be focused on it.  Now, we (scientist) need everyone else to tell Congress to not let sequestration hurt the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  New effective surgeries or treatments will not happen without the money to do the experiments.

NOTE:  Please, share your thoughts and comments on our Facebook page:  First Generation STEM: Education, Science, Community and Knowledge.

Time to Stop Harassing Poor Folks

By Caleph B. Wilson

As a “Son of Mississippi” I am very proud of the early experiences that shaped my life.  My family and the people that I group-up around did their best to teach me and encourage me to work hard and effectively.  In turn, each time an opportunity presented itself, I worked to be appropriately prepared for it.  Given the experiences that  I have had one thing is very clear:  The notion that one pulls themselves up by their boot straps is nonsense.

Without all of those folks who decided to follow the Southern phrase, “If can’t do nothing to help ya, I ain’t gone do nothing to hurt ya,” it would have been impossible for me to follow my dreams.  So, any success attributed to me is not mine alone.  My family, friends and supporters are just as responsible.  They provided the guidance, while my role was to put in the required honest effort.

This is where I take issue with the cognitive dissonance of those in my home state (and around the country and world) that blame poor people for not working hard enough to get anywhere.  Further, poor folk are constantly characterized as “takers.”  The truth is that most folks that are considered poor go to work every day.  Today’s poor folks are just like the ones that raised me.  Each day starts before with a prayer before the sun peaks over the horizon.  Kids are readied for school, breakfast is prepared and the family parts looking forward to the new day.  Each adult takes pride in earning an honest pay and children are excited about learning.

So, these poor folk are not “takers.”  They don’t look for anything that is not earned.  Instead, their expectation is that hard work will be rewarded.  Yet, a lifetime can pass without any reward.

These poor folk are told how they are dependent on the government.  How the Federal government is trying to take their freedom.  Government is “bad.”

Well, here’s what I have to say to poor people.  When you are confronted with those folk that refuse to recognize your hard work at school or on the job, remind them of these words, “JUDGE not, that ye be not judged.”  Also, remind them of the hypocrisy of pseudo-leaders Those same so-called leaders that chastise you for expecting help from the tax dollars that you and your family has paid or will pay.  Remind them that 40% of the Mississippi state budget is provided by tax payers from all around the country.  Ask those pseudo-leaders if why are they accepting a handout from “Big Gov’ment.”  Look them in the eye and ask why they are not helping themselves.

So, all of you hardworking folk that happen to be poor:  Don’t pay attention to the non-sense.  Keep striving to give yourself and your family a better life.  Remember, folks like you are the backbone of this country.  Your compassion for and love of these United States is what leads people from all over the world to risk life and limb to live where you live.

NOTE:  The post above is drawn from my personal experiences, however, the opinion can be applied to all 50 states.  I was driven written to address the growing number of media reports that quote folks unjustly blaming the poor.

School Security: Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire?

By Caleph B. Wilson

Before the end of the school year a middle school in Grenada, MS (my hometown) identified a student that brought a loaded handgun to school.  In this case clear communication between students, staff, teachers and administrators lead to disarming the student without incident.  (Because a minor was involved some of the details of the situation is incomplete.  Hopefully, this very serious incident will be rapidly resolved and include measures that will eventually allow the student re-enter the educational system.)  This was a clear demonstration of how communities can entrust school districts to keep their children safe.  Unfortunately, the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hood Elementary School in Newton, CT is the backdrop for this situation.

With this in mind, the Grenada School District (GSD) has worked with local authorities and parents to review their security plans and contingencies.  This process has been played out by school districts all over the country.  It is a clear demonstration that communities and policy makers are working together to keep children safe and focused on learning.  Commonsense and professionalism is where we all should place our trust.

On top of this, some have moved to pushing for armed security, metal detectors and other security measures.  However, arming teachers moves unreasonably to the extreme.    Teachers are trained education professionals and should be focused on teaching not staying on the ready to engage armed threats.  Further, with all that we demand for educators adding more to their plates will likely have negative impact on the education of children.

Additionally, the cost in insurance and added security would likely mean reallocation of funds from pure educational activities.  Here is a question:  Does it make sense to hurt education quality by taking away funds that are already stretched thin? Educating our children is the point.  That is why all stake holders have to be engaged in the conversation.  Parents, families, students, educators, school administrators, law enforcement and government (local, state and federal) have to be shape the conversation for efficient, effect and balanced school security measures.

So, adding armed uniformed off duty police officers for security is a reasonable response.  Yet this situation can go overboard.  Remember schools are not correctional facilities and over doing armed security at schools may change the atmosphere.

We live in an open and free society.  Preserving our way of life truly depends on maintaining our identity in the face of horrific tragedy.  Reason and data driven professional advice should always guide our response(s).

UPDATE (12 December 2012):  A source within the Grenada School District confirmed that GSD did not detect the firearm until after the suspected student brandished the handgun at another student while on a school bus.