Austria's search for a cure for AIDS

A new born baby at Vienna's general hospital. The parents are relieved - it's apparently healthy. And its chances of a long life are good as it's been born into a wealthy society where even feared diseases like Aids can be treated. But if it was born in almost any country in sub-Saharan Africa its prospects would be far less hopeful. In fact there's a good chance it would contract the HIV virus which causes aids from its mother.

Tony Barnet from the London School of Economics studies the social impact of the AIDS epidemic:

"It makes people die prematurely and they leave orphans behind. And those orphans also contract aids and die prematurely. And I guess that now in the 25th or 30th year of the epidemic - for it's that long that it has been going on - in Africa certainly - we're seeing orphans of orphans of orphans. And at each stage of the orphan process we are breaking the bonds of human society."

This laboratory at Vienna's Institute of Applied Microbiology is leading the fight against the spread of HIV - AIDS. Of the world's four known Anti-bodies against AIDS - three of them were discovered here. They have show great promise in preventing the transmission of the HIV virus from mother to baby during and after birth. So far tests have only been carried out on monkeys but scientists like Herman Katinger want to take the next step.

"First passive immunisation of babies and what from a purely scientific point of view is extremely interesting - if we can show that these anti-bodies are protective in humans then lots of research based on using these anti-bodies as tools for the design of new vaccine immunogens make lots of sense."

Professor Katinger and his colleagues believe that what they call "passive immunisation" - giving these antibodies to mothers during delivery and birth can prevent the transfer of the HIV Virus from mother to child across mucous membranes.

"We think a baby is most endangered in the first weeks. A baby is not responsive to vaccines and therefore a combination of passive immunisation with anti-bodies on the one hand with a follow up, probably with a vaccine, and active vaccine against HIV, if such a vaccine is existing, which is not the case now, would be a situation where we would have a real hope to save babies."

Dr Norbert Vetter is one of Austria's top AIDS experts. He's alarmed by the fact that in the countries of Central Europe - the greatest number of new infections is among women.

"There are only women who will give birth to children so we have to be aware of this situation and build strategies to reduce transmission from mother to child. There are other situations, how to get a child if you are discordant - one is infected and one is not infected. So there are a lot of issues coming out of this progression of the disease particularly in women."

This is a frustrating time for Herman Katinger. He believes that passive immunisation will save many lives. But the funds for human clinical trials are lacking.

"For babies in Africa or somewhere else in the developing world this is not really a market - it's just a demand and where you have no market - just a demand - the interest of the capitalistic world is not very big."

Though he's short of funds, Herman Katinger and his colleagues are planning a new study in Africa in which they hope to show how the anti-bodies will reduce the transmission of the HIV Virus from mother to child. He says a ten percent reduction would be would be a great success.