This is Why Developing an HIV Vaccine is Really Hard

For three decades researchers have been working to protect against the tricky virus

Artist's illustration of HIV J Roberto Trujillo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Vaccines are one of humanity’s best tools against infectious diseases. Some work incredibly well, but the vagaries of biology make other far more tricky to develop. Such is the case with a vaccine that can combat the virus that causes AIDS. 

More than 30 years ago, HIV was isolated and the then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler, announced that with that discovery a vaccine was just two years away, reports Azeen Ghorayshi for BuzzFeed News. Of course, that promise is still struggling to become a reality, stymied primarily by the shape-shifting nature of HIV. Ghorayshi goes on to explain why, thirty years on, researchers still don't have a vaccine. She writes:

In normal vaccines, such as those for measles or smallpox, a weakened or dead virus induces our cells to produce proteins, called antibodies, to attack that specific virus. Once our immune cells learn which antibodies to produce against a specific virus, we are essentially protected for life.

To create a successful vaccine against HIV, however, the body needs to produce a defense arsenal capable of fighting a constantly mutating target. Antibodies, which normally have very specific targets, would need to be able to recognize and attack a wide range of enemies.

Over the past few decades, insights have come after hard work by scientists. One discovery in 2010 revealed that rare individuals produces very powerful antibodies that are capable of neutralizing most HIV strains. They are called broadly neutralizing antibodies. But getting uninfected people to produce them has been difficult. Most researchers in the area think that a cocktail of proteins may be needed to train the body to produce those antibodies against HIV — that cocktail would be the vaccine.

This week, three new studies advanced that front line of research. Two studies in Science and one in Cell suggest hat injecting certain proteins into uninfected animals can induce the production of those neutralizing antibodies and block infection with HIV. Key to the effort is directing the antibodies through several stages of a maturation process, writes Bradley J. Fikes in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Each team worked on a different aspect of the process.

“We're really starting to see that rational vaccine design can work,” Dennis Burton, an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, told Science. He is a co-author on both Science studies. 

The trials have a long way to go before they produce a successful vaccine for humans. But as Sheift of Scripps Research Institute, a co-author on all three studies, told Ghorayshi at BuzzFeed News, “these studies are a shot of encouragement."

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