Major drug company GlaxoSmithKline is hoping to develop an experimental AIDS vaccine by "piggy-backing" on a shot against measles.
A collaboration between Europe's biggest drug maker and France's Institut Pasteur plans to make the vaccine by fusing genes from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) onto an existing vaccine for the childhood disease.
GSK Biologicals, Glaxo's vaccines unit, will apparently license the measles vaccine vector, or carrier, technology from Institut Pasteur, and researchers from both groups will jointly develop the new vaccine.
This new project is the latest in a range of novel approaches to fighting HIV, which has to date killed more than 3.1 million people this year alone.
Many scientists believe a vaccine is the best hope for ending the epidemic, but the virus has proved far more difficult for vaccine developers to outwit than anyone anticipated when the first case of HIV/AIDS was reported in 1981.
Glaxo believes adapting a measles shot is a promising approach, since the vaccine against this old disease is known to give very long-lasting immunity.
The hope is that using it as a carrier to deliver HIV proteins will produce a similarly potent and long-lasting vaccine to prevent AIDS.
The are however no guarantees of success, and the project will take many years of research before scientists know whether they can manufacture a safe and effective therapy.
The research will be carried out under a public-private collaboration, and the initial project will be supported by a grant of 5.5 million euros from the European Union.
There will be four research centres involved in France, Belgium and Britain, and the partners hope to start clinical studies in about three years.
The development of public-private partnerships is being increasingly used to tackle diseases, including malaria and tuberculosis, that occur primarily in poor countries where Western pharmaceutical companies stand little chance of making money.
The deal means that in exchange for public sector support, companies must agree to make any successful medicines available in developing countries at affordable prices.
Glaxo and many of its rivals, are pursuing a number of different AIDS vaccine ideas, and earlier this year signed a collaboration with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative to develop a vaccine using an adapted chimpanzee virus, known as an adenovirus, to carry HIV proteins into cells and trigger an immune response.
Glaxo also has a third in-house AIDS vaccine project, and experts believe any successful AIDS vaccine might have to combine a number of such different approaches.
Although other companies are also stepping up work in the hunt for a vaccine, U.S. company Merck is thought to be leading the race at present.
In September this year it said it was doubling enrolment into a clinical trial of its leading AIDS vaccine candidate following encouraging initial results, though final results of the trial will not be available until at least 2008.