HIV has long been a pressing issue for medical science, but vaccinating it seemed impossible. How can you teach cells to fight a pathogen that they don’t recognize as a pathogen in the first place? Now, researchers at The Scripps Research Institute may have found a way. Unlike traditional inoculation methods, they’re able to alter DNA in monkeys such that their cells learn to fight HIV.
In monkey testing, the results have so far been nothing short of astounding. Those involved in the experiment were shown to be protected from all strains of HIV for at least 34 weeks.
“Our compound is the broadest and most potent entry inhibitor described so far,” said Michael Farzan, a professor on TSRI’s Florida campus who led the effort. “Unlike antibodies, which fail to neutralize a large fraction of HIV-1 strains, our protein has been effective against all strains tested, raising the possibility it could offer an effective HIV vaccine alternative.”
HIV works by targeting part of the body’s immune system. When it attaches to a cell, it inserts its own genetic material and causes the cell to create even more of the virus. This weakens the immune system, obviously. That’s why it’s not HIV that kills, but rather a normally benign illness that HIV allows to ravage the body.
The TSRI inoculation method takes a novel approach in that it attacks the HIV virus at two sites, not just one.
“When antibodies try to mimic the receptor, they touch a lot of other parts of the viral envelope that HIV can change with ease,” said TSRI Research Associate Matthew Gardner, the first author of the study with Lisa M. Kattenhorn of Harvard Medical School. “We’ve developed a direct mimic of the receptors without providing many avenues that the virus can use to escape, so we catch every virus thus far.”
The drug works in concert with previous research, which found that a benign engineered adeno-virus works much like HIV – only in a positive way. When injected into muscle tissue, it also turns cells into factories, except these factories are churning out the aforementioned protective protein that binds to HIV.
They found that the method was effective against very high doses, the equivalent of an individual already infected with HIV. This makes it, at least in theory, a cure. The team is eager to proceed to human trials, but don’t expect the drug to be available any time soon – anything that works by altering the immune system at the genetic level will need an awful lot of testing.