Scientists may have discovered a way to spur the human body to create antibodies capable of blocking the HIV virus. Researchers at institutions around the United States said in five studies published Thursday in the journals Cell, Immunity and Science that they had made an important early step toward developing a vaccine for the disease.
“It's early work, but we're trying to rewrite some rules of vaccine development to overcome the extraordinary challenges of HIV,” William Schief, director of vaccine design for the Neutralizing Antibody Center at the Scripps Research Institute’s International AIDs Vaccine Initiative, said. "In a collaborative effort we have reached critical milestones, including the first proof ever that immunization with designer proteins can produce broadly neutralizing antibodies against HIV. The new results strongly support further developing these approaches toward testing in clinical studies."
There are still some major challenges before clinical studies on humans can begin. To put it simply, HIV is difficult to combat because it attacks the very immune cells sent out to fight it. When the body is successful in fighting it (usually with the help of drugs) the virus is really good at hiding dormant until the next opportunity to stage a comeback. Traditional vaccines haven’t worked to fight HIV but this new research shows that so-called “broadly neutralizing antibodies” are capable of controlling or preventing infection from a range of HIV strains and researchers think these special antibodies are the key to formulating a vaccine.
But for it to be effective the vaccine would have to be much better than nature. Only about 10 to 20 percent of people infected with HIV develop the antibodies on their own and it can take years for them to develop. This new vaccine would have to coax the human immune system to act differently. The researchers were able to spur this kind of reaction in mice whose immune systems mimicked components of the human immune system.
Vaccines aren’t the only way scientists hope to address the HIV problem around the world. Other approaches — including one that resulted in the only known case of HIV being cured, stem cell transplants — are being looked at.