Since it was first observed clinically in 1981, HIV and AIDS have come to be viewed as one of the most deadly and infectious diseases in history, exceeded only by the Bubonic Plague and Smallpox. As of 2010, it was estimated that roughly 34 million people were living with HIV/AIDS, an increase of close to three million from the previous year. And although accurate statistics are sometimes difficult to come by, due to the fact that motrality rates are especially high in underdeveloped regions of sub-Saharan Africa, it is widely believed that anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million people die every year as a result of the disease.
However, researchers at Caltech have been working on a potential solution which may eventually lead to the development of an HIV vaccine. In recent years, biologists have identified a strain of antibodies that are capable of neutralizing most strains of HIV. Led by Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, the Caltech research team is experimenting with introducing these antibodies into test subjects (lab mice) to see if it would act as an effective barrier to infection.
The approach, known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP), is essentially an inversion of the traditional vaccination method. Previously, researchers would focus on designing substances that activate the immune system so as to block infection via antibodies or attack infected cells via T cells. The VIP approach differs in that it provides protective antibodies from the start, thereby ensuring that the HIV virus is killed before it can develop into AIDS, and providing a respite for the immune system which is usually called on to do the work.
And so far, the results have been encouraging. After introducing the antibodies into a series of lab mice, the researchers found that the mice were then able to generate a high concentration of the antibodies throughout their circulatory systems. When they then proceeded to introduce the HIV virus intravenously to the mice, the antibodies protected them from infection.
Naturally, there were concerns going in that human bodies might not react in the same way as the mices’, either in terms of their production of the antibodies or their resistance to infection. However, Baltimore and his team were sure to use mice which have been known to be more susceptible to the HIV virus than others, and administered doses of the virus that were well in excess of what would be needed to lead to infection. In the end, they introduced the mice to 125 nanograms of the virus, 100 times what would be required to cause infection, and yet still the mice were protected.
For those living with HIV, this is exciting news! Though it does not represent a cure for those already carrying the infection, it does mean that future generations can live without fear of the contracting the terrible disease. What’s more, those who have it will no longer have to fear passing it on, either through sexual intercourse to their partner, or through pregnancy to their children. Yes, with continued testing and some eventual human trials, HIV may very well come to share the same fate as Polio, Tetanus amd Typhoid, diseases which were once considered terribly infectious, fatal, and untreatable.