Difficulties Persist in HIV Research


New research into HIV, which is the viral infection that eventually leads to AIDS, has discovered what may be a ray of hope for the many scientists who have had difficulties in developing a cure for the endemic disease. Scientists from The Scripps Research Institute, which is a non-profit biomedical research center based in California, have published a new article in the journal Cell discussing their finding of antibodies in certain patients infected with HIV. These patients have developed antibodies that can penetrate the virus, attacking the virus’s ability to fuse with host cells within the individual’s body.

Traditionally, researchers have developed vaccines by either weakening or killing the virus in question. For example, polio vaccinations relied on weakening the original virus into a non-virulent form. Exposure to this weaker strain of the virus gave the majority of those receiving the vaccine an immunity to the polio strains that existed in the wild. Early smallpox inoculation programs, which date back to the late 18th century, against smallpox involved infecting patients with its much less dangerous viral relative cowpox.

However, neither of these techniques were successful in creating a viable HIV vaccine. But this new discovery may hold the key to developing a new type of vaccine, one that mimics part of the antibody against an illness rather than the illness itself. This type of antibody does not help in those already infected with the virus, as those who developed this form still suffer from HIV, but it may save the lives of those not yet infected. Whether or not this will be successful in humans is not yet known, but infusions of these antibodies seemed to protect monkeys from simian HIV infection.

As of yet, only one person appears to have been cured of HIV. While there was a case in the United States where a young child seemed to have been cured from HIV infection, it was later discovered that the child had a viral load that was low enough to be undetectable before her relapse. The now singular case of an individual eradicating HIV infection is known as the ‘Berlin Patient.’ This patient, a man named Timothy Ray Brown who had been previously infected with HIV, had undergone treatment for leukemia. As part of his treatment plan, his physicians destroyed his bone marrow with radiation to stop the spread of his cancer. Afterwards, Brown received a bone marrow transplant. Not only did his leukemia go into remission, but also his viral load plummeted into nonexistence.

The mechanisms behind this miraculous cure in Brown are not now known. HIV researchers believe there maybe three reasons why Brown would be able to shed his infection. The first is that the bone marrow had coincidentally originated from a donor with a rare mutation that makes them resistant to HIV infection. There does appear to be a small population of individuals with a genetic or hereditary mutation who have some immunity against HIV infection. The radiation may have also destroyed all his infected bone-marrow cells, which were eventually replaced with non-infected cells at the end of his treatment. Brown may have also had a very fortunate case of graft-versus-host disease, where one’s immune system fights against donated tissue, that attacked his HIV infection rather than the bone marrow.


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