The discovery of antibodies that completely neutralise nearly all strains of HIV could mean an effective vaccine is within sight, scientists say.
Kenyan scientist Prof Thumbi Ndung’u told the Star although most studies are in their infancy, the broadly neutralising antibodies (bnabs) offer hope for effective treatment and prevention of HIV.
“It’s a major advancement — but we don’t expect a vaccine immediately because researchers still need to understand the bnabs better to design vaccines that can stimulate such broadly neutralizing antibodies,” he said during the just-ended the second HIV Research for Prevention conference (HIVR4P) in Chicago.
Prof Ndung'u heads the HIV pathogenesis programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
He said research on the bnabs is one of the fertile approaches that scientists have taken to combat the epidemic.
Dr Sandhya Vasan of the US Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences, Bangkok, said scientists need better understanding of these antibodies.
“One other issue that will need to be evaluated is the complexity and cost of manufacturing bnabs,” she noted.
Antibodies are large Y-shaped protein molecules created by the immune system to identify and neutralise foreign objects and pathogens such as bacteria and viruses.
They are manufactured by white blood cells called B-lymphocytes or B-cells.
Dr Vasan explained that they act by coating the surface of the invader in order to prevent the virus from entering or damaging healthy body cells. They can also stimulate other parts of the immune system to destroy the pathogens.
“Most antibodies cannot effectively fight the HIV virus because it mutates and changes its form, but some people produce antibodies that can neutralise most HIV strains,” she said.
Some of these bnAbs can neutralise 90 per cent of HIV-1 strains worldwide at low concentrations.
Researchers first identified an HIV bnab in 2009 from a person living with HIV.
New technologies that allow antibodies to be fished from huge numbers of individual B cells and tested for activity have now spurred a flurry of activities.
Recent researches have proved that broadly neutralizing antibodies can protect mice or macaques against a single high-dose challenge with HIV or simian/human chimaeric viruses (SHIVs) respectively.
But this has not been tested in humans.
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