The Human Immunodeficiency Virus, better known as HIV, is a remarkable microorganism. It attacks our immune system, halting our natural line of defenses. It can hide inside cells so that we can’t get rid of it, and it is extremely adaptable, changing its surface component so that we can’t train our body to produce antibodies.
But scientists and activists are not backing down from the challenges that fighting off this virus pose. In a new study, published in the journal Immunology, researchers report the successful trial in rabbits of an experimental HIV vaccine.
One of the main efforts going into producing a vaccine is about teaching our antibodies to recognize the many forms HIV can take. The test results of this trial showed that the vaccine produces broadly neutralizing antibodies, or bnAbs, that can neutralize a wide variety of strains. They found that the bnAbs targeted at least two critical sites on the virus. Scientists expect that the long-sought vaccine will have to be capable of targeting multiple sites on the virus so that no matter what changes its surface has been through, the immune system will still be able to recognize the ever-changing virus and deal with it.
"It's an initial proof of principle but an important one, and we're now working to optimize this vaccine design," senior author Dr Richard Wyatt, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research, said in a statement.
This vaccine was developed by a team at Scripps Research and the nonprofit vaccine research organization IAVI. While the finding is certainly exciting, this is not the only bnAbs vaccine approach in the work. Several vaccines are currently in clinical trials and their results should be revealed over the next few years.
“The development of an effective HIV vaccine has been challenging in light of the nature of the virus and its interaction with the human immune system; no person has ever naturally recovered from an HIV infection, and there are no correlates that signal what immune responses are needed to block or clear HIV,” Dr Jill Gilmour, executive director for Human Immunology at IAVI, previously told IFLScience.
“An HIV vaccine remains an essential tool to halt the spread of HIV and end AIDS. The number of new HIV infections has hardly decreased over the last five years, and could increase if prevention efforts are not scaled up substantially.”
For prevention to be effective, there are many steps to take. Ignorance and stigma regarding the condition must be challenged at every occasion. Governments need to offer sexual health classes and make condoms and drugs such as PrEP available to everyone.
Much must be done to help people already living with HIV too, as it is no longer a death sentence. People on effective treatments who have an undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus, and this year even saw the first HIV+ kidney transplant. Until a vaccine becomes available, it is paramount that people are given access to the available medication and that communities are educated about this.