Further Advances in the Search For an HIV Vaccine
HIV is a remarkable organism. While it may be microscopic, the activities that go on are quite impressive. At the very least, there is a lot of work that occurs in the virus’ life. It is the study of some of these functions which has scientists hopeful that a new vaccine may be just around the corner. One study in particular has caught some special attention.
The HIV itself looks like a spiny or spiky ball. At the ends of these spikes are three proteins. These are special proteins and they are called gp120. The way they are arranged on their spikes resembles the petals of a flower, in that they can open and close. The gp120 molecules have specific functions or jobs to do. One of those includes helping the virus bind to other cells. The proteins can also stay closed and hide these binding areas. Think of an airplane coming in to land on a landing strip. If the strip is concealed, the plane will fly right over it. HIV works in a similar way when it comes to the immune system. The immune system sends out antibodies in an attempt to fight the infection. These antibodies hunt the HIV and look to destroy it; however, the gp120 can keep the HIV safe by concealing the landing space or binding area. If the antibodies cannot bind with the virus, infection occurs.
Each of the proteins on the HIV is equipped with tiny molecules called amino acids. Scientists have discovered that by altering certain levels, the amino acids can either open or close the gp120 proteins. This is good news, as by controlling this process, scientists can help the immune system find and kill the virus before infection takes place. This means that if further testing is successful, effective HIV vaccines may be appearing in the near future.
Observing SIV Vaccinations for Monkeys Brings Researchers One Step Closer to an HIV Vaccine
Since HIV was first discovered, researchers have been scrambling to find not only a cure, but also a vaccine. The goal is to stop the virus before it can infect healthy human cells. Ongoing experiments have yielded some benefits, and others have led to important discoveries. One such study holds promise. This particular study had a breakthrough with SIV (the simian form of the virus) that may be applied to humans.
Researchers used a vaccine developed for SIV to see if the monkeys that were vaccinated would fight off SIV when exposed. In doing so, they carefully followed the course of action taken by the immune system. This involved tracking certain amino acids and antibody activity. Repeated responses were clear enough to help predict new infections. Also, certain spikes in amino acids helped researchers determine what was crucial in order to trigger effective immune responses.
The monkeys that were vaccinated were then exposed to a mix of SIV strains. These strains were divided into two groups. The first group were targeted by the immune system and immediately neutralized. No infection occurred with these strains of the virus. However, with the next group, the virus was resistant to the antibodies. This, more often than not, resulted in infection. A closer look at the chemical changes that occurred led to some important information.
The breakthrough came when changes in amino acids were noticed and changed the SIV from a resistant form into one that could be neutralized. The opposite could also happen, depending on how the amino acids spiked. Upon testing this on HIV, the same actions resulted. This could mean that these amino acids hold the key to neutralizing HIV. Further investigation will determine if this could indeed be what’s needed in order to create an effective vaccine.
New Spin on an Old Theory Brings Researchers One Step Closer to an HIV Vaccine
Testing and experimentation to find an HIV vaccine has been ongoing for nearly thirty years. Over the past three decades, there have been numerous approaches to the subject in order to find one that might work. One of these includes the thought of targeting how the virus attaches itself to a healthy cell. It is hoped that by doing this, an attack from the immune system would target and eliminate the threat, thereby avoiding infection. Recent experimentation in Europe yielded some promising results.
By taking an envelope protein called gp41—which is part of HIV—and engineering it, researchers were able to come up with one way of slowing or even preventing an infection. What makes this protein so special is that it is responsible for attaching itself to human cells. By preventing this bond, it is hoped a successful vaccine can be developed.
This idea is not a new one. It has been extensively researched. What makes this approach novel, however, is the engineering behind it. How the protein is designed by engineers enables it to potentially alert the immune system. For example, it can attach to T-cells and trigger an immediate response. This, in turn, can aid in ridding the body of the virus.
There is a setback with the design, though. The problem lies in the fact that not all immune cells are infected via the gp41 protein. This leaves certain cells open to attack. While this needs to be addressed, it does not mean all is lost. Researchers are hoping to create a vaccine that tackles the problem in different ways. The use of gp41 is one way, and perhaps when combined with another method, an effective vaccine can be produced. When this does happen, it will be a major victory in the battle against HIV.
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, has been linked to several genital cancers. These infections are particularly troublesome in countries where poverty and HIV are also rampant. Vaccines that protect against HPV infection have proven effective but certain threats still exist.
Moreover, this type of infection has been studied extensively in women, but limited attention has been given to its effects in men. A five-year study of HPV links this disease to an increased risk for HIV in men.
The tragic fact is that in certain places, like Kenya, the leading cause of death is HIV and AIDS. A study of over 2,500 Kenyan men was conducted to see if there was a connection between an infection caused by HPV and the risk of HIV infection. 61 of the men observed in the study had acquired HIV at some point during the trial. Unfortunately, there was a link: It was found that those who had HPV were at greater risk for acquiring HIV, and this proved true whether or not the male was circumcised. This comes as sad news: Each year, HIV claims nearly 2 million lives worldwide. The information gathered in this study showed that greater attention to the prevention of these diseases still has to be made.
One glimmer of hope is inoculation. As mentioned, there is a single-dose vaccine available for HPV, and it is useful in preventing HPV-borne cancers. Extensive research still has to be done to determine if this alone is enough to prevent HIV as well. The effects of the HPV vaccine and the results of administering it to men still have to be studied. However, it is still highly recommended for women to receive the vaccine.
The concept of an effective HIV vaccination is a difficult theory to comprehend. The fact is that a viable vaccine would have to introduce enough of the disease for the body to create antibodies for it. The issue is that even when a person has full-blown AIDS the body can’t put up any kind of defense. So how to get the body to protect itself against a disease that fights the immune system? That is the difficult challenge that faces researchers who have dedicated themselves to finding a vaccine for HIV.
Researchers are working on such a strategy right now using antibodies from the blood of the rare individuals whose bodies have managed to create some of these elusive antibodies. The idea is to find a way to create antibodies for any person based off of the antibodies of these special few.
The researchers have observed and attempted to reverse engineer the process by which the bodies of these special individuals are able to create effective antibodies. It is hoped that the molecules they have observed at the onset of the antibody creation are the key to an effective vaccine.
While these findings may not directly result in a viable vaccination for HIV, it is clearly a big advancement in what has been a long and frustrating search. Millions upon millions of dollars have been heaped into research over the past several decades, and yet very few strides in the right direction have been taken. Thus, any glimmer of hope is still clung to by researchers.
Since the molecule worked as expected in a test tube setting, animal testing is next. If the molecule can get the bodies of animals to consistently make HIV antibodies, then it can progress to the human testing stage. Years, of course, will go by as the studies continue on.