HIV researchers at Duke discover route to vaccine

relder@newsobserver.comApril 3, 2013 

Research led by Duke University scientists has discovered an early and effective immune response to the HIV virus that is considered a first step toward creation of an effective vaccine for HIV/AIDS.

The research, published Wednesday in the science magazine Nature, is the first time that scientists have been able to track the virus from the earliest stage of infection to understand how it evolves in response to what are known as broadly neutralizing antibodies, said Barton F. Haynes, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute and head of the research team.

Most antibodies produced by HIV patients fail to eradicate the virus because it mutates quickly when antibodies attack. But about 20 percent of people produce broadly neutralizing antibodies that attack the virus in various ways and are known to be more effective at stemming the infection.

“All this time, we have known there are people who can develop broadly neutralizing antibodies, but we’ve never before found a patient who has them and could be studied from the beginning,” Haynes said.

A vaccine for HIV has eluded researchers because of the virus’s ability to sidestep the immune system’s attack. Haynes described the virus’s seemingly unending adaptability as “like a nuclear arms race.”

“The U.S. builds a bomb, then another country builds a bigger bomb, and that leads to new level of technology they didn’t have at the beginning,” he said.

Scientists had previously discovered people who produced broadly neutralizing antibodies but not until years after they had contracted the virus.

Researchers now need to find a way to stimulate the body to produce the broadly neutralizing antibodies identified in the new study.

The research published Wednesday stems from a single subject in Africa with HIV, the researchers said. Additional studies are planned that will follow similar patients as they are identified in the earliest days of their illness.

Work toward developing a vaccine for HIV/AIDS began in 2008 as part of a collaboration between the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and Duke’s Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology (CHAVI).

CHAVI’s members include 70 investigators at 37 institutions.

Researchers participating in the study came from Duke as well as from the National Institutes of Health, Boston University, Stanford University, Columbia University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Myron Cohen, associate vice chancellor for public health at UNC, said scientists at his university have helped locate HIV patients who recently contracted the virus.

“We have been committed to trying to find people as close to the day they were infected as possible,” Cohen said.

He said earlier subjects discovered to have the broadly neutralizing antibodies had been infected five or more years, when the exact trajectory of cell changes was impossible to decipher.

The African patient cited in the recent study was identified as having HIV “days after infection” yet was already making broadly neutralizing antibodies, Cohen said.

“This shows us that we might be able to make a vaccine that would not require cells to undergo massive change,” he said. “It makes a vaccine more probable.”

Haynes said there was no way of knowing how long it might take to “tease apart thousands of sequences” of viral and antibody genetics in order to come up with a formulation that could work as a vaccine.

The goal would be to have a vaccine that works with three or four separate antibodies to address the problem of HIV mutations.

“HIV is 30 years old, and we’ve been working on a vaccine for 28 years,” Haynes said. “With this research we are much closer to knowing what the problem is and now have a glimmer of what we need to do.”

Elder: 919-829-4528

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