The quest for an effective and safe HIV-1 vaccine has been and still is the aspiration of many scientists and clinicians worldwide. Until recently, the hopes for an effective vaccine were thwarted by the disappointing results and early termination in September 2007 of the STEP study, which saw a subgroup of male vaccine recipients at an increased risk of HIV-1 infection, and the failure of earlier trials of vaccines based on recombinant envelope proteins to provide any level of protection. The results of the STEP study raised important questions in the field of HIV vaccines, including the use of recombinant adenovirus vectors as immunogens, the rationale for the development of T-cell-based vaccines and the development pathway for these vaccines, in terms of assessment of immunogenicity and the challenge models used. The study of neutralizing antibodies has demonstrated that the induction of high-titre, broadly neutralizing antibodies in the majority of recipients is likely to be highly problematic. However, the results of the RV144 Thai trial released in September 2009 have brought new optimism to the field. This study employed envelope-based immunogens delivered as a priming vaccination with a recombinant poxvirus vector and boosting with recombinant proteins. This regimen provided modest protection to HIV-1 infection in a low-risk population. Although the correlates of protection are currently unknown, extensive studies are underway to try to determine these. Neutralizing antibodies were not induced in the RV144 study; however, considerable titres of binding antibodies to HIV-1 viral envelope (Env) were. It is speculated that these antibodies may have provided a means of protection by a mechanism such as antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity. In addition, no CD8+ T-cell responses were induced, but robust CD4+ T-cell responses were, and correlates of protection are being sought by analysing the quality of this aspect of the vaccine-induced immune response. The current paradigm for an optimal HIV-1 vaccine is to design immunogens and vaccination protocols that allow the induction of both broadly neutralizing humoral and broadly reactive and effective cell-mediated immunity, to act at sites of possible infection and post-infection, respectively. However, this is challenged by the results of the RV144 trial as neither of these responses were induced but modest protection was observed. Understanding the biology and immunopathology of HIV-1 early following infection, its modes of transmission and the human immune system's response to the virus should aid in the rational design of vaccines of increased efficacy.