HIV: AIDS Vaccine May Be On Way After Antibody Study Shows Promise

By Hilda Scott , Apr 03, 2013 04:48 PM EDT

Researchers have tracked the immune system's response to the HIV virus. Observation of the mutation process looks like a promising path toward the development of a vaccine. Scientists at Duke University, with the help of researchers from various other institutions, including Columbia, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, teamed up for the study.

An AIDS vaccine has not been easy to come up with for scientists, due to the rapid mutation of the HIV virus. To get an idea of how fast that can be, the HIV virus mutates in one day as much as flu viruses mutate in a year.

For the study, blood samples from an African male were analyzed for a period of two years, starting shortly after he got infected. Two years marked when he began to produce what's known as "broadly neutralizing antibodies." They are called that because they tend to block 55 percent of HIV strains.

"The beauty of this is that it's a big clue as to the sequential steps the virus and the antibody take as they evolve," Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said. As reported by the New York Times, Dr. Fauci explained that roughly 20 percent of people who carry the HIV virus produce these help antibodies, but usually after they've been infected for two to four years. When it gets to that point, the virus is mutating more rapidly and the broadly neutralizing antibodies are overrun.

Over a dozen broadly neutralizing antibodies were found by scientists to date and they have been isolating them for years.  Scientists theorize that if these antibodies can be reproduced in large quantities for known HIV strains, it may be helpful for patients who are newly infected.

For patients that are already infected, they would have to receive lifetime shots and it would be costly. At best, it would keep the virus from replicating. On the other hand, if healthy patients were given a vaccine like that, it would encourage the body to produce the antibodies and automatically kill any future infection.

It's "a road map to vaccine development, yes — but it's like one of those maps of the world from the year 1400. We still don't know how to turn this into a vaccine," said Dr. Louis J. Picker, an H.I.V. vaccine specialist at Oregon Health and Science University.  The study was published Wednesday in the journal Nature. 

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