Because of HIV-1’s incredible diversity and rapid mutating ability, medical researchers have long considered the virus incurable. Specifically, vaccine development has always stalled because no jab has ever been able to successfully target the many strains of HIV-1 with antibody induction. Perhaps, until now.
A new vaccination strategy for HIV-1 induced a diverse arsenal of protective antibodies in monkeys recently, prompting researchers to wonder if they’ve finally cracked the code to the modern virus that has killed millions worldwide in the past decades.
Like COVID-19, HIV-1 also has spike proteins that it uses to attach to host cells, but scientists are taking a different approach to creating a vaccine than they did for Covid. Any HIV-1 jab needs to be able to neutralize multiple circulating strains. Early HIV-1 vaccine programs focused on immunizing with the spike protein’s attachment subunit, with the reasoning being, if a virus can’t attach, it can’t infect.
Stabilized spike proteins induce antibodies for HIV-1 patients
But the theory proved ineffective. Researchers hypothesized that the answer must contain both the attachment and fusion subunits of the protein, and be capable of undergoing configurational change. A group of scientists at Cornell University discovered that chopping a small segment at the end of the spike protein resulted in a highly stable molecule with the regular, propeller shape that is now accepted as a routine feature of HIV-1 spike proteins.
The team chose a spike protein from an HIV-1 virus collected from a newborn Kenyan infant who had become HIV-1 positive from birth. The infant developed neutralizing antibodies by the time he was three years old. Researchers from Duke University knew that particular spike protein could hold the key to producing a vaccine.
After significant testing on monkeys, the researchers noted that the antibodies produced from the spike protein mimic similar antibodies found in the child from whom the spike proteins were isolated. This finding suggested that humans also produce these antibodies in response to the introduction of a stabilized spike protein. If the findings can induce broadly neutralizing antibodies in humans, then modern medicine will be right on the cusp of an HIV-1 vaccine.