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He's Indiana Jones With a Scintillation Vial and He May Be Close to Discovering a Vaccine for AIDS

Dr. Don Francis, San Francisco's scintillation vial-wielding version of Indiana Jones, is getting ever closer to finding the 21st Century's Holy Grail.

Today, Francis and his colleges at Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases, a non-profit in South San Francisco, announced they are close to creating a vaccine for HIV.

Working with an international team, GSID has discovered a "boosting vaccine regimen" -- a "prime boost combination" that appears to reduce HIV infection rate by more than 31 percent. If this works, imagine how many children will not become orphans, or how many family members will not have to grieve the loss of their loved ones. Apparently, "San Francisco Jones," who helped discover HIV and AIDS, is now determined to swash-buckle this Sybil-psycho, ever-morphing virus into submission for good.

For those of us who once attended several AIDS related funerals a day, this news, coming from a once-vilified savior, is nothing short of Shakespearean, but then, drama always follows heroes.

I was just a young cub reporter when I first witnessed Don Francis' courage. He screamed from the mountaintops in a herculean effort to explain to anyone willing to listen -- AIDS was becoming a deadly beast. He understood its nihilistic capacity long before others did. AIDS and its chameleon-like nature exhausted most epidemiologists, but Francis kept working and learning and chasing this most complicated and illusive retrovirus. As soon as scientists reached an "a-ha" moment, HIV morphed into some new and ever-more horrifying disease.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Bay Area hospitals brimmed with once-vital young men who were quickly reduced to boil-covered skeletons with dementia. It was brutal.

But Francis fought on, warning those most vulnerable to awake from denial and stop covering their ears. He told them to cover other body parts with latex instead. Because of that warning, he was called a homophobe by some and forced to hire body guards to protect his family.

A critically acclaimed book called And the Band Played On was written by San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts, who died of complications of AIDS in 1994. The book describes what I witnessed at the time.

Don Francis seemed to be taking on the entire world. He battled an indifferent government's political posturing, a resistant medical community, greedy pharmaceutical companies and Pavlovian reactions from a gay community who dismissed Francis as just another bigot telling them how to live.

I watched as he ignored it all and fought a good fight to save untold numbers of lives. And, apparently, Francis still has his bullwhip and tattered fedora hat at the ready. In a world ruled by greed and personal promotion it's comforting to see "San Francisco Jones" still reaching for the Grail.

Everyone on the planet who is potentially at risk for HIV should thank Francis and his colleagues, including Carter Lee at Global Solutions. We should all wish for a world where integrity, selflessness, and concern for others are the ingredients that define our heroes. It should not go unnoticed that this and so many other hopeful findings today are discovered by non-profits.

For anyone who has ever loved and lost someone with AIDS -- for those who honor life over profit -- it is a bright day indeed.

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