Newly discovered antibodies raise HIV vaccine hopes

Fresh hopes for an HIV/AIDS vaccine have emerged with the discovery of antibodies that can thwart the virus. Imagining a world without AIDS is a distinct possibility, say scientists who were in New Delhi for a two-day scientific group meeting of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

Dr Wayne Koff, chief scientific officer in IAVI and a leading figure in the AIDS vaccine research, said scientists have isolated, from HIV-positive donors around the world, a number of antibodies capable of blocking a broad spectrum of HIV variants. Only some infected people produce these antibodies and it takes the body three years to start doing so. Scientists say the vaccine developed has to give people the right kind of HIV protein that "instructs" the body how to make these antibodies.

"Scientists have mapped the structure of the protein that encases HIV's critical genetic information, a development that could eventually lead to new drugs to fight AIDS. We now understand what the HIV protein looks like, what the weaknesses are, and where the antibodies can bind them to neutralise the virus," Koff said.

When the antibodies were first isolated from donors, IAVI set out on a worldwide hunt under a project called 'Protocol G'. In India it was undertaken by an HIV vaccine design programme set up by IAVI and the New Delhi-based Translational Health Science and Technology Institute.

Researchers studied 1,800 samples across the world. "In India, THSTI collected blood samples from 200 HIV-infected persons (who are not on any treatment) and conducted the first round of screening," said Dr Sudhanshu Vrati, head of THSTI's vaccine and infectious disease research centre. "Initial results have picked up four such broadly neutralising antibodies," Vrati added.

The goal is to isolate antibodies that are broadly effective against the HIV subtype predominant in India, said Dr Rajat Goyal, IAVI country director, India.

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