Of all the times to get AIDS, I get it right when everyone stops giving a crap. ~Eric Cartman
While that’s a mediocre-at-best South Park episode, it does bring up an interesting point- AIDS was a huge deal in the 90s, but has slowly faded into the background in the past ten years. Cancer is the bigger threat in the minds of the populous.
And swine flu, bird flu, sheep flu, or whatever-fucking-animal-it-is-this-year flu pandemics.
The thing is, whether people are thinking about AIDS or not, it’s still a dangerous, incurable fucking disease. And people are contracting HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) all the time. Still. 2.7 million did so in 2008. And those are just the people who contracted the virus that year. An estimated 33.4 million people the world over were living with HIV/AIDS in 2008. A number that increases every year.
And, as of right now, this disease is incurable. Since 1981, 25 million people worldwide have died of AIDS. Which can seem like a small percentage when compared to the entire global population, but it remains an atrociously high number.
But, during my evening internet readings tonight, I came across a few articles detailing a recent possible breakthrough in the quest for an HIV/AIDS vaccine. Mmm, medical science research, we haven’t visited you in a while. Let’s rectify that.
Recently, US scientists have discovered three powerful antibodies. The strongest of the three can neutralize 91% of HIV strains.
Okay, let’s backpedal for a second here and do a quick overview of how antibodies work. Just so we all understand what we’re talking about here. Antibodies are proteins found in the blood (or other fluids). They all have similar basic structures, but a portion of the antibody, located at the tip, is an extremely variable region. That means that there can be millions of different types of antibodies, each with a slightly different tip structure.
Now, why is that hypervariable region so important? Well, that region serves as an antigen binding site (antigens are things like viruses and bacteria- the targets of the immune system’s reaction). When the antibody binds to an antigen, it either tags the antigen for attack by another part of the immune system or effectively neutralizes the threat of the antigen.
Way to go, immune system.
Our new HIV antibodies were discovered in the body of a 60-year-old man, referred as Donor 45 in the scientific literature. Now, HIV antibodies have been discovered in the past, but they tended to be wonky in shape and difficult to work with. So, scientists used a special probe to pick out antibodies that act against the part of the virus that interacts with CD4+ cells (the cells targeted by HIV). Thus, the scientists would be unearthing antibodies with broad neutralization capabilities.
“Knowing that it’s possible for a human to make this kind of antibody really increases our optimism that it could be elicited by a vaccine,” says Gary Nabel, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
An HIV vaccine has been the focus of AIDS research for years. Vaccines work by activating the body’s ability to produce specific antibodies. So what scientists have to do now is discover how to get the body to start producing these strong, neutralizing antibodies. If they can figure this out, a vaccine can be created- an incredible prevention technique against further contraction of HIV. Like polio and smallpox, a vaccine for HIV could practically wipe AIDS off the map.
But it’s not all smooth sailing from here. First of all, scientists don’t know how to stimulate a person’s body to produce these particular antibodies. They need to basically reverse engineer the production method (since they are starting with the desired output). Thankfully, this technology already has a start, and while the scientists who have created it haven’t been able to use it yet to create a strong enough vaccine, it’s “proof of principle” that this system could work to turn these antibodies into a working vaccine.
Of even greater concern is something called affinity maturation. The cells in the immune system go through several mutations, selecting the antibodies that have the greatest affinity for the specific antigen. What this means is that most mature antibodies have 10-15 mutations. VRC01 (the strongest new antibody) has a ridiculous 66 different mutations. And we can’t just use immature antibodies, because they have been proven incapable of blocking HIV. Because scientists don’t fully understand all the ins-and-outs of the maturation process, they don’t know how to harness it properly. Which they need to be able to do to create an effective vaccine for HIV. Suggestions have been made that the vaccine might need to be given repeatedly, or different components would be administered at different times, in order to foster production of more mature antibodies. As of yet, though, there’s no clear answer to this problem.
So, while there’s still a long way to go, it feels like we’re actually taking steps forward in HIV/AIDS research. Which is fucking fantastic. AIDS scares the crap out of me. It’s sexually transmitted. HIV can easily go unnoticed by someone who’s infected (so long as it’s still in its latency period). And, while it came into popularity as a disease that mostly impacted gay men, this is no longer the case (as of 2008, half of those infected by HIV were women… everyone is at risk, people).
Contracting HIV is not only scary because it is pretty much a death sentence, but because of the other enormous impacts on your life. It makes it hard to maintain a relationship, which is vital to human happiness. It prevents you from having kids (if that’s something you want). HIV, while sometimes manageable, is still completely life-altering. And devastating.
This research is a step in the right direction. Keep it up, scientists.