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Science finally closing in on an HIV vaccine

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on July 11, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
July 11, 2010 10:01 am

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

A vaccine for HIV has been a long time coming.

In 1981 – 29 years ago this month – medical researchers reported an apparently new illness that was killing people by crippling their immune systems. It would be called AIDS.

In 1984, researchers demonstrated that AIDS was caused by a specific microbe, the human immunodeficiency virus. The identification of the virus led many to expect a vaccine within a few years.

Bitter disappointment followed. As millions began to die of AIDS, scientists discovered that the HIV virus mutated so rapidly into so many varying strains that existing methods of vaccine development were useless against it.

Finally, more than a quarter century later, an HIV vaccine is in sight, though only on the horizon. When the International AIDS Conference convenes in Vienna this Sunday, it will buzz with good news – the discovery of at least six antibodies that knock out broad spectrums of HIV strains.

A team of researchers at California’s Scripps Institute has found two antibodies that – between them – disable all but one of 95 HIV strains tested, according to the Wall Street Journal. The antibodies work because they target spots on the virus that mutate little.

The science that produced these breakthroughs didn’t exist in the 1980s.

The Scripps team found one of the magic bullets in an African American, Donor 45, who has carried the HIV virus for many years without developing AIDS. The researchers created an infinitesimally small replica of the virus’ vulnerable site and used it to fish for the mysterious antibody that was keeping Donor 45 healthy. They used this molecular probe to screen 25 million cells from his body. In 12 of those cells, they found the HIV-killer.

Having identified broad-spectrum HIV antibodies, researchers should be able to reverse-engineer molecules that stimulate the body to produce them. At long last, science appears to have a clear path toward guarding people against HIV infections and perhaps also defeating infections after they occur.

That prospect is years out, though. In the meantime, more than 7,000 people a day are being infected with HIV throughout the world. In some regions – especially sub-Saharan Africa – few of the victims have access to the antiretroviral drugs that have prolonged the lives of many in the United States and other Western countries.

Despite those drugs, AIDS is far from beaten. The existence of antiretroviral treatment, in fact, has led to complacency and an increase in reckless sexual behavior among high-risk Americans.

Unfortunately, the treatment often doesn’t work, and the jury remains out on how long it actually can extend life. HIV is still very much a killer, even in the United States. The rising likelihood of a future vaccine is welcome, but it’s no substitute for prevention and caution in the here and now.

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