Hemingway’s Old Man Inspires Shark Oil for HIV Vaccine

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection

Two pharma giants are teaming up to test the latest HIV vaccine, taking a hint from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, reports Bloomberg.

People on the coasts of Norway and Sweden have used shark liver oil for centuries to help heal wounds and treat respiratory and digestive illnesses, according to the American Cancer Society. In Hemingway’s book, which describes the struggle of a fisherman with a giant marlin, the protagonist drinks a cup of the oil each day because it’s “very good against all colds and grippes” and is “good for the eyes.”

Researchers are working on a way to inject the milky shark oil with an HIV protein that allows the molecules to sneak by a cell’s defenses and gain entry. From there, the harmless vaccine will cause the body to produce antibodies in the hopes of warding off any exposure to the real virus.

“To kill this dragon is going to take more than one knight,” says Michael, who as director of the military’s HIV research program ran the decisive ALVAC test in Thailand. “A vaccine isn’t a panacea. But in the absence of one, the epidemic will soldier on.”

Human trials in South Africa and Thailand are scheduled to start in 2013 or 2014.

In the meantime, scientists are working on ways to more sustainably derive the compound from olive oil, though they point out that 95 percent of harvested shark liver oil is used for the makeup industry.

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