Will This Man Discover a Vaccine for HIV?
BY Trudy Ring
February 18 2014 5:00 AM ET
The search for a cure or vaccine for HIV hasn’t always inspired optimism—but hopes are buoyed now by recent advances, including a new understanding about how certain rare antibodies can fight the virus.
“There has been a substantial amount of research that has already been done” since scientists isolated some such antibodies in 2009 and 2010, says Ron Diskin, a biomedical researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, who recently visited the U.S. to share some of his findings and participate in a variety of HIV awareness efforts with the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.
These antibodies, which occur in roughly 10 percent to 20 percent of people with HIV, are able to block many strains of the virus, which mutates rapidly and can therefore resist other antibodies produced by the human immune system. This special class of antibodies is therefore known as broadly neutralizing antibodies.
Researchers have known for some time that a small number of people with HIV produced broadly neutralizing antibodies, usually long after they were infected, even though these antibodies did not always prevent their disease from progressing. Scientists believe, though, that broadly neutralizing antibodies could be used in a vaccine to prevent HIV from taking hold in the first place. Some, including Diskin, think it could also eventually be used in treatment, replacing antiretroviral medications. Or, perhaps, human cells could be reprogrammed to produce the antibodies, he says.
Scientists isolated several new broadly neutralizing antibodies in 2009 and 2010, including one that can block more than 90 percent of the strains of the virus. Since then, researchers have been analyzing these agents to find out how they work—how they recognize and neutralize HIV, how the body produces them, and even how they can be made stronger.
In 2011, while doing postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology, Diskin was part of a team that modified an antibody called NIH45-46 to make it more effective in stopping HIV from entering cells. “We took something that was already extremely good and made it better,” he says.
Others pursuing research on broadly neutralizing antibodies include Rockefeller University, a partner with the Weizmann Institute; the National Institutes of Health; and the Scripps Research Institute, which has a partnership with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. Diskin emphasizes that what he is doing is “basic research” into the antibodies’ properties; it will be up to others to develop them into products that can then be tested, eventually, on humans. But that’s not necessarily far off, he says.