Researchers have charted a new route that could help develop a vaccine to boost a person’s ability to neutralize the HIV virus, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature.

Barton F. Haynes, M.D., director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, and John Mascola, M.D., acting director of the NIH Vaccine Research Center, led a team of researchers who studied an HIV infected person whose immune system attacked the pathogen, allowing them to describe the co-evolution of antibodies.

More than 30 million people worldwide have died because of HIV – there is an urgent need for a vaccine to be developed.

The HIV virus has proven to be particularly difficult in inducing an antibody response, which makes developing a vaccine very difficult. When HIV antibodies are produced the virus changes quickly to avoid harm.

In a previous study, researchers found a vulnerable spot on the outer shell of the HIV virus that enabled two infected people to make antibodies powerful enough to kill most of the HIV types known around the world.

In this study the researchers used a new form of technology which is able to detect the early infection of the virus and track the body’s immune response.

Haynes, who led the work at the Duke Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology-Immunogen Discovery (CHAVI-ID) consortium, said:

“This project could only have been carried out by a multidisciplinary team working closely together. For the first time, we have mapped not only the evolutionary pathway of the antibody, but also the evolutionary pathway of the virus, defining the sequence of events involved that induce the broadly neutralizing antibodies.”

The finding comes after a study of a person who was infected with the virus in Africa before the virus had time to mutate and avoid an attack by the immune system.

The person also had a trait in which their immune system was able to produce broadly neutralizing antibodies – a characteristic which is only found in around 20 percent of people infected with the virus.

The immune system attacks parts of the virus that are vulnerable and conserved regardless of any mutation.

The researchers were able to identify the outer envelope, the viral surface glycoprotein, which caused the development of neutralizing antibodies.

The team made a detailed road map for the development of a potential HIV vaccine by tracking the virus and the antibody pathways.

Haynes concluded:

“The next step is to use that information to make sequential viral envelopes and test them as experimental vaccines. This is a process of discovery and we’ve come a long way with regard to understanding what the problem has been.”

Written by Joseph Nordqvist