After years of virtually no progress, researchers have taken an important step toward developing a vaccine for HIV.
Scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Viral Research Center discovered two antibodies that can bind to a part of the human immunodeficiency virus and neutralize it. Past research has identified other antibodies that also bind to the virus, but these were only able to neutralize 4 out of 10 strains. Researchers found that these newly discovered antibodies, called VRC01 and VRC02, can neutralize 9 out of 10 strains.
Experts say this is very significant, since it means that these antibodies stopped virtually all 190 strains of HIV from damaging the immune system. One of the biggest challenges researchers and vaccine developers have faced over the years is the ability of HIV to mutate very quickly, rendering most antibodies ineffective against new strains.
They hope that the discovery of these antibodies can help lead eventually to development of an HIV vaccine, though they caution there's no way to predict when, or even if, that could happen.
"It's an important step in the right direction of adding a degree of precision to vaccine development," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health. "But there's no way to tell when a vaccine could happen," he added.
The ability to neutralize HIV broadly is a finding other researchers see as encouraging and exciting as well.
"Vaccine development has been one disappointment after another," said Dr. Paul Volberding, vice chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Volberding was not involved in the research. "As we learn more about the very specific nature of these regions that are unchanging from one virus to the next we can keep moving forward."
New developments like this, while preliminary, are also heartening to people living with HIV/AIDS, like New York attorney Jim Williams.
He knows there may not be much a new vaccine can do for people like him who are already infected, but he's glad that others may not have to live with HIV.
"I wouldn't want anyone to go through what I've gone through," Williams said.
While he feels very fortunate that the virus hasn't made him sick, he wishes he could say the same about his antiretroviral medication.
"One moment you're fine, the next moment you're going off on somebody," he said. "I also had very vivid dreams, and I had to stop taking the subway. I needed to walk so I could be sure I could find a bathroom."
While he's on different medication now that doesn't have such bad side effects, he still longs for a vaccine.
"I'm constantly frustrated that there's no vaccine yet," he said.
Scientists involved in vaccine development share Williams' frustration, but think the discovery of VRC01 and VRC02 is a step forward.
"These antibodies can serve as guides to make vaccines for HIV and will be tools to try and block infections in some clinical studies and develop new prevention strategies," said Dr. Gary Nabel, one of the study's co-authors and the director of the Vaccine Research Center, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, National Institutes of Health.