Is an HIV vaccination in the future? That’s what researchers are hoping for although it is still a long way off. In Nature Medicine (October 22 issue) a study was published in which two women from South Africa who have HIV were discovered to have a unique cover to the disease, which was then harvested in an attempt to create antibodies. Those antibodies were successful at destroying 88 percent of the types of HIV it was introduced to. It is hoped to be the key to a future vaccine.

The study has been going on for about five years already. Various researchers from the NICD in Johannesburg, Witz University, the University of Cape Town, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal have all joined forces to study the unique antibody responses that have been found in certain HIV patients. Because these antibodies can kill a wide range of HIV strands from across the globe they are referred to as being “broadly neutralizing.”

Professor Lynn Morris and Dr. Penny Moore have found glycan, a type of sugar, placed in a particular spot on the protein cover of the virus makes it vulnerable to the body’s natural antibody response. This has taken years of study to discover.

Obviously the prospect of these discoveries turning into a vaccine is an exciting one for scientists. HIV is a worldwide scourge, and a vaccination would save countless lives. Broadly neutralizing antibodies are an important part of such a vaccine since the virus has so many unique strains around the globe.

This is the first time that researchers were able to figure out how these antibodies are made. They were first identified just three years ago, although their existence has been known for quite some time. The discovery this research team has made is significant because knowing the process by which the antibodies are made is a key in being able to recreate them. The researchers were able to track the progression of the disease in the two women studied. This allowed them to find a weakness in the disease that had not existed when they were first infected.

Over time their bodies produced various antibodies that are found in all people to fight off various diseases. Over years of time, this places pressure on the HIV causing it to reveal its weak point. Two thirsds of people infected with subtype C HIV, the most common type in Africa, will have the vulnerability at this same position (it is being called position 332). While being a big step forward, this still leaves a vaccination in the distant future. After all, if only two thirds of one subtype of the disease are vulnerable to glycan on position 332, then vaccines will likely have to be able to attack multiple targets to defeat the virus. This will take more study.