Plans for the tests on Tuesday followed large-scale trials in Thailand of another preventative AIDS vaccine failed a late-stage clinical trial.

Barbara Ensoli of Italian health institute ISS said if the vaccine is successful, “it could spell the end of this epidemic”.  She has been heading the research project since it began in 1996.

The United Nations’ latest global estimates show about 40 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, including an estimated 2.5 million children under the age of 15.

More than three million people died from AIDS in 2003 and another five million were infected in 2003.

Protein-based vaccine

The latest vaccine is based on tat, a small protein essential for the virus replication and aims to stop the disease spreading.

“Tat is produced extremely early upon virus entry, so this (vaccine) cripples the virus at the initial stage of the infection…So we don’t speak about sterilising immunity. We speak about controlling infection and blocking transmission,” said Ensoli.

Initial tat vaccine trials will occur at three Italian clinics and are expected to take about a year. The tests are aimed to ensure it is harmless to humans.

Animal tests showed it had no toxic effects and blocked the development of the illness.

The vaccine could save millions of lives, particularly in developing countries, said Ensoli.

There are currently 12 vaccine candidates in human trials. But the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) estimates less than 1% of the $70 billion spent yearly on global health product research is dedicated to AIDS vaccine research.