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The Immunity Project hopes to build a better HIV vaccine through crowdfunding and machine learning

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Immunity Project
Immunity Project

The team behind a new HIV vaccine is hoping that a combination of crowdfunding, venture capital, and an innovative new scientific approach will help it to a major breakthrough in fighting the virus. The Immunity Project thinks it has found a new way to fight HIV, and it's using a combination of Kickstarter-style crowdfunding as well as backing from notable startup incubator Y Combinator to get off the ground. Perhaps most notably, the Immunity Project wants to give away its vaccine for free — and it hopes to have it ready for widespread distribution by 2016.

At a high level, the Immunity Project says that its vaccine works by "turning those who receive it into HIV controllers." The Immunity Project calls HIV controllers "miraculous" people who have an inborn immunity to HIV — unlike the immune systems of normal people, HIV controllers have the ability to easily target and neutralize the HIV proteins that show up in infected cells. Unfortunately, only one in 300 HIV patients has this ability — but the Immunity Project says that this "power" will be granted to anyone who takes the vaccine.

To build the vaccine, the Immunity Project turned to a machine learning algorithm that scanned blood samples from HIV controllers. It learned exactly what aspects of the HIV their immune system targets, and those targets were then used to develop the vaccine. Another key component of the vaccine is that it doesn't need to be refrigerated, something the Immunity Project believes will help it make it significantly easier to distribute the drug in areas like Africa.

Immunity Project wants to distribute the vaccine in 2016

There's no doubt that these are lofty goals, but the Immunity Project's vaccine is still a long way from being a reality, and it's going to need a lot of money to get through the clinical trial phase. That's where the Immunity Project's fundraising comes in — the company is looking to raise $482,000 over the next 30 days for one final experiment that'll use human blood before it begins its first clinical trial. The money needed for that phase one clinical trial, which will test the vaccine on humans for the first time, is significantly more — around $25 million.

That's where Y Combinator comes in — the Immunity Project is only the second nonprofit organization that Y Combinator has ever backed. "This is certainly a new sort of company for us, but it's the kind of crazy idea we like," said Sam Altman, a Y Combinator partner, in a statement. "I spent a fair amount of time with this group during their application process, and am personally donating both money and blood."

Whether or not that'll help the group meet its ambitious 2016 goal for distribution remains to be seen — getting vaccines approved is far from a simple process, and the Immunity Project's new approach could mean extra scrutiny. We should know more soon, however — the Immunity Project hopes to finish this final experiment by March and start the phase one clinical trial by the end of the year. If you're interested in learning more, the Immunity Project team will be hosting an AMA on Reddit tomorrow at 4PM ET.