Still years from being available from doctors – but really promising research!
HIV research is undergoing a renaissance that could lead to new ways to vaccinate against the AIDS virus and other viral diseases.
In the latest development, U.S. government scientists say they have discovered three powerful antibodies, the strongest of which neutralizes 91% of HIV strains, more than any AIDS antibody yet discovered. They are now deploying the technique used to find those antibodies to identify antibodies to influenza viruses.
The HIV antibodies were discovered in the cells of a 60-year-old African-American gay man, known in the scientific literature as Donor 45, whose body made the antibodies naturally. The trick for scientists now is to develop a vaccine or other methods to make anyone’s body produce them as well.
That effort “will require work,” said Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was a leader of the research. “We’re going to be at this for a while” before any benefit is seen in the clinic, he said.
The research was published Thursday in two papers in the online edition of the journal Science, 10 days before the opening of a large International AIDS Conference in Vienna, where prevention science is expected to take center stage. More than 33 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2008, and about 2.7 million contracted the virus that year, according to United Nations estimates.
Vaccines, which are believed to work by activating the body’s ability to produce antibodies, eliminated or curtailed smallpox, polio and other feared viral diseases, so they have been the holy grail of AIDS research.
Last year, following a trial in Thailand, results of the first HIV vaccine to show any efficacy were announced. But that vaccine reduced the chances of infection only by about 30%, and controversy erupted because in one common analysis the results weren’t statistically significant. That vaccine wasn’t designed to elicit the new antibodies.
The new discovery is part of what Wayne Koff, head of research and development at the nonprofit International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, calls a “renaissance” in HIV vaccine research.
Antibodies that are utterly ineffective, or that disable just one or two strains, are common. Until last year, only a handful of “broadly neutralizing antibodies,” those that efficiently disable a large swath of HIV strains, had been discovered. And none of them neutralized more than about 40% of known HIV variants.
But in the past year, thanks to efficient new detection methods, at least a half dozen broadly neutralizing antibodies, including the three latest ones, have been identified in peer-reviewed journals. Dennis Burton of the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, Calif., led a team that discovered two broadly neutralizing antibodies last year; he says his team has identified additional, unpublished ones. Most of the new antibodies are more potent, able to knock out HIV at far lower concentrations than their previously known counterparts.
HIV is a highly mutable virus, but one place where the virus doesn’t mutate much is where it attaches to a particular molecule on the surface of cells it infects. Building on previous research, researchers created a probe, shaped exactly like that key site, and used it to attract only those antibodies that efficiently attack it. That is how they fished out of Donor 45 the special antibodies: They screened 25 million of his cells to find 12 that produced the antibodies.
Donor 45’s antibodies didn’t protect him against HIV. That is likely because the virus had already taken hold before his body produced the antibodies.
While he has produced the most powerful HIV antibody yet discovered, researchers say they don’t know of anything special about his genes that would make him unique. They expect that most people would be capable of producing the antibodies, if scientists could find the right way to stimulate their production.
Dr. Nabel said his team is applying the new technique to the influenza virus. Like HIV, influenza is a highly mutable virus—the reason a new vaccine is required every year.
“We want to go after a universal vaccine” by using the new technique to find antibodies to a “component of the influenza virus that doesn’t change,” said NIAID director Anthony Fauci. In principle, Dr. Fauci said, the technique could be used for any viral disease and possibly even for cancer vaccines.