(Photo : Creative Commons/Erik Derr)
Researchers from Duke University Human Vaccine Institute at Duke University School of Medicine say they're one big step closer to a vaccine for the deadly human immunodeficiency virus infection / acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, otherwise known as HIV/AIDS.
A study team led by Barton Haynes, director of the Human Vaccine Institute, has found a way to generate anti-HIV antibodies, which can bolster the body's ability to ward off any related infections, according to a report in Time.
From the onset of infection, the human immune system generates antibodies designed to attach to --- and destroy --- HIV. And for the first few weeks, the study researchers said, such antibodies are successful in destroying most viruses that have entered the body.
But, a few viruses are able mutate to avoid detection for a while, multiplying until they're found out and a new wave of antibodies are dispatched. The ensuing confrontation prompts the HIV virus to mutate and expand again, until the antibodies are sent to attack it again.
That internal battle cycle keeps repeating, said the researchers, until eventually the body isn't able keep pace with the attacking virus and the immune system falters, unable to neutralize the HIV.
That's what happens in about 80 percent of those infected with HIV.
But in about 20 percent of the cases, the person's body creates antibodies that are not only able to neutralize the latest, mutated version of HIV, but a wider range of viral infiltrators.
Previous attempts to encourage the body to churn out the stronger antibodies haven't worked, primarily because the antibodies take on different shape, resulting in the immune system targeting them as well.
The stronger antibodies also have a tendency to fight healthy cells too, making them unpredictable.
But by recording the various mutations that HIV generates, along with the resulting antibodies created to fight the virus in a specific patient who is able to produce broadly neutralizing antibodies, Haynes and his colleagues believe they have found out how to spur the immune system to keep churning out the HIV-fighting immune cells.
"We followed individuals from the time of HIV infection to the time they generated broadly neutralizing antibodies, and mapped and isolated the virus at every step along the way so we now don't have to guess any more about what induced those antibodies," Haynes told Time. "We have a map on how to recreate the sequential [versions of HIV] that could drive particular antibody lineages."
With its findings published in the journal Nature, the research was possible because Haynes had collected and saved blood samples from about 400 patients over the course of about three years.
"Now we have a picture of how these antibodies developed, so what we are doing is figuring out how to use them to make a vaccine," says Haynes. "We are trying to take an unusual or rare event and make it more common."