A levelling off of the US National Institutes of Health research budget in fiscal 2006 looks likely to increase the pressure on projects to perform or face termination, according to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr Fauci told a press conference organised by the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the modest increase in the NIH budget next – up just 0.5% to $28.8 billion dollars, compared to doubling of the budget between 1997 and 2003 – could have implications for a range of research projects, particularly the search for a vaccine against HIV.

One consequence is likely to be that vaccines will have to show early promise in testing or be dropped in favour of other, more promising candidates, he said. Meanwhile, NIH divisions will have to work even more closely with Industry and research organisations, such as the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, to make the most of the funding available.

The slowdown in NIH funding has increased the need for greater coordination and data-sharing among studies, so that results from a clinical trial conducted in one country could, for example, be better applied in another country, said Fauci. This should also reduce the amount of duplicative work being undertaken, he added.

One of the main issues is that while 30 trials of HIV vaccines are ongoing around the world, no candidate stands out as being particularly effective in preventing HIV infection, and all work mainly by stimulating cellular immunity, in which the body’s immune system destroys HIV-infected cells, said Seth Berkley, president of the IAVI. The possibility remains that an antibody-based (humoral) response will be essential for a preventative vaccine to be effective and, if so development could be set back for some years.