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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 7 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 10
South African scientists discover new HIV antibodies
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South African scientists discover new HIV antibodies

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

South African scientists announced on March 2 that they have discovered potent new HIV antibodies that might eventually lead to an effective vaccine against the disease.

Researchers said they and their American colleagues had identified 12 closely related antibodies capable of recognizing and destroying multiple strains of HIV. The research team was able to track their evolution over time and figure out how to replicate them through cloning in the laboratory.

The antibodies were isolated from one specific volunteer subject known only as CAP256 to protect her identity, and tracked back in time over four years.

Few research groups had access to such long time-series of blood samples, which were housed by the Centre for AIDS Research in Africa (CAPRISA), according to Professor Lynn Morris.

Morris is head of HIV virology at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), and co-author of a paper describing the research that was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.

The antibodies isolated from patient CAP256 had protruding 'long arms,' which enabled them to reach through the sugar coating that normally protects HIV. The antibodies target a specific part of the HIV-1 strain, known as V1V2.

The new research opens up two new lines of attack on HIV/AIDS. First, the cloned antibodies would be investigated as a possible treatment or prevention tool for HIV/AIDS, and second, the knowledge gleaned about the antibodies' evolution over time offered clues for future vaccine development.

Morris said it might be possible to design a vaccine that elicited these kinds of antibodies. The research team is planning to test the antibodies in macaque monkeys, to see whether they could prevent or treat infection, according to co-author and CAPRISA co-director Salim Abdool Karim.

Morris and Karim said they hoped to build on work published last year by Dan Barouch at Harvard Medical School, which showed a single injection of potent HIV antibodies derived from human patients could reduce the monkey version of HIV to undetectable levels within a few days.

Karim said the team ultimately hoped to combine several broadly neutralizing antibodies, just as today's drug treatments combined multiple drugs.

'If it has a benefit in treatment, just think what it could do. We could have a patient get an injection of the antibodies once every three months, and it would reduce the amount of ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) they would need,' he said.

South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi commended the dedication and patience of South African researchers.

'Without endurance - as research progresses in understanding the virus and how it works - we would not be able to outsmart this very clever virus,' he said.

He also acknowledged the patients who had contributed to HIV research.

'It is clear that while we can achieve much in laboratory studies, human subjects are always the mainstay of research,' he said.

Scientists have been working for decades to develop a vaccine that prevents HIV/AIDS, a difficult task in part because the virus evolves so rapidly that there are many different strains of it.

An effective vaccine would need to prompt the body into making what are known as broadly neutralizing antibodies, capable of recognizing and destroying multiple strains of HIV. This latest discovery is significant because the antibodies identified are apparently of this type, and suitable for reproducing in the lab.

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