In the continual struggle to effectively treat HIV, a disease that kills millions of people a year, researchers may have made an exciting breakthrough. In a new study, scientists report that they have developed a new type of antibody that could potentially treat, and even prevent HIV infection.
One of the main reasons why HIV is so tricky to get on top of, a bit like the common flu virus, is that it is rapidly changing. Because of this high mutation rate, in which the surface proteins that the body would ordinarily use to identify it are frequently altering, the immune system struggles to recognize it. This makes the job of developing a drug to tackle it pretty difficult to boot.
It also means that within the body, the virus can develop into multiple different strains. This again compounds the immune system, as it has to lead the fight against multiple types of the same pathogen.
But, reporting their findings in Science, researchers have been able to develop a new type of antibody, shown in animal trials to tackle almost all the various strains of HIV. It works by hitting the virus at three different weak spots, reducing the chance that the virus will be able to evolve resistance.
The new antibodies are expected to go to human trial next year and show promise that they could not only treat those already infected, but vaccinate against the infection too.
The trials involved developing antibodies that hit the virus at three different points. These are known as trispecific or broadly neutralizing antibodies. Some people naturally produce them after years of infection with HIV and they can kill a wide variety of different strains.
But these naturally occurring antibodies are only successful to a degree. So far, tests have shown that they are able to fight up 90 percent of HIV strains, which while good, is not perfect. By tweaking the antibodies, however, researchers have developed a new version that has been found to convey incredible coverage and target 99 percent of strains.
“They are more potent and have greater breadth than any single naturally occurring antibody that's been discovered,” Dr Gary Nabel, chief scientific officer at Sanofi, told BBC News. “We're getting 99% coverage, and getting coverage at very low concentrations of the antibody.”
The researchers tested the antibodies on 24 monkeys. Incredibly, they found that not one of the primates given the trispecific antibodies went on to develop an infection after they were injected with HIV.
Human trials are expected to begin in 2018, though there is still a long way to go even if these prove successful.