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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 5, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 14
New hope for a HIV vaccine - Researchers discover immune system's 'training manual'
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New hope for a HIV vaccine - Researchers discover immune system's 'training manual'

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Researchers at Duke University say they have found what they describe as the body's 'training manual' for combating HIV infections. The discovery may lead to the creation of an effective HIV vaccine, the scientists said.

'Current human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) vaccines elicit strain-specific neutralizing antibodies,' the scientists write in the current issue of the journal Nature.

'However, cross-reactive neutralizing antibodies arise in approximately 20% of HIV-1-infected individuals, and details of their generation could provide a blueprint for effective vaccination.'

In other words, the research shows that in some HIV patients their antibodies are able to attack and destroy many strains of HIV, not merely one as in most patients. These patients are therefore able to cope with the constant mutations of HIV much better than patients whose antibodies only attack one or two strains of the virus.

HIV'S WEAK SPOT
In patients with so-called 'cross-reactive' antibodies - about 20% of all HIV patients, according to the study - their antibodies target parts of the virus that do not mutate.

'Even though the virus mutates, and there are literally millions of quasi-species of virus because of all these mutations, there are parts the virus can't change - otherwise the virus cannot infect. These are the vulnerable sites,' Professor Barton Haynes of Duke University's Human Vaccine Institute told the BBC.

The research team's study is based on an HIV patient in Africa who had a rapid diagnosis, only about four weeks after being infected with the virus. Because the individual was diagnosed very early on, doctors were able to observe the entire progress of the infection.

This patient was eventually able to produce an antibody called CH103 that could neutralize 55% of HIV samples. But it was not produced in one easy step, researchers said. Instead it was the product of a 'war' between the immune system and HIV, each trying to out-evolve the other.

A CONSTANT BATTLE
When someone is infected with HIV, their body produces antibodies to attack it. But the virus mutates and evades the offensive, so the body produces new antibodies that the virus then evades and the war goes on.

Through regular genetic analyses of both the immune system and the virus, researchers could piece together each of the steps that culminated in the production of CH103, giving them what they call 'a training manual for the immune system.'

'What we were able to do was map out the arms race of both virus and antibody, and in doing so we have now a map,' Haynes said. 'This is the first time we've been able to see the actual road map.'

The challenge now is to re-create the steps and see if that could lead to a viable vaccine, Haynes added.

It would almost certainly need to be a vaccine combining multiple 'Achilles' heels,' in the same way that HIV therapies are a combination of drug treatments, Haynes believes.

'This paper is really interesting,' Dr. Sarah Joseph, who tests HIV vaccines for Britain's Medical Research Council told the BBC. 'Some people do make antibodies that neutralize a lot of HIV virus, bit it is not of use to them as they produce it way too late.'

She said harnessing these antibodies 'could be a big deal' and there was 'even talk about mass-producing antibodies and infusing people with them' - in other words, using these antibodies as an HIV vaccine.

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