"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.
"Once you begin to see how things really attach and work, you can get a crystal structure of it. And once you have that, it begins to lead to discovery of new antibodies you can use in humans," said Dr. Margaret Fischl, professor of medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine. She is not affiliated with the NIAID study.
Now that the structure of the vulnerable region of the virus is known, researchers say there are a couple of logical next steps in vaccine development, though again, they stress there's no way to tell if or when these milestones may become reality.
"It would be huge if a year or two from now if we were able to put it into a vaccine and we vaccinated people, and we were able to make a neutralizing vaccine," said Fauci.
"If you have an antibody that looks interesting, probably the next step is to make enough of it to use in small-scale trials and then you would use it to see if it actually works in humans," said Volberding. "Test it on animals, and then see if it's worth the huge investment of a long-term study on humans."
Experts also say this discovery may also eventually have therapeutic value.
"In infected people, we may be looking at it in combination with medication and determine whether you can get more effective control of the virus and suppress it down to low levels," said Nabel. "The hope would be that we could suppress the virus and increase life span and improve quality of life."
"You can't totally eradicate the virus from the body, but you may be able to lead to a cure that completely controls the virus. You may be infected, but the virus doesn't damage the immune system," she said.
Another way this antibody can potentially be used is to prevent the virus from taking hold in people who may have been exposed to it through tainted blood or engaging in high-risk behavior.
"We think there's a good chance it can abort an infection entirely," said Nabel.
Others aren't so sure.
"It's hard to imagine it would be used in people that are already infected," said Volberding. "The treatments we have for infected people are working quite nicely."
He also doesn't believe there's much value in using it after people have been exposed to HIV.
"Post-exposure prophylaxis is done with drugs used to treat the infection and that's been effective," he said.
Regardless of how the vaccine is used, Jim Williams can't wait for the day when it's available, because he wants others to be spared the horror of hearing the doctor say they're HIV positive.
"It was devastating to me when I was diagnosed. Those two words change your life forever."