A South African research team has published a study that has significant implications for the development of an HIV vaccine, although how far away the practical application is, remains difficult to measure.
Researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa, and the University of Cape Town (UCT) released a statement confirming that their team, which included a PhD candidate at Wits, had published a seminal study that could be a decisive step towards a working vaccine.
The study, in a nutshell, focuses on a process that could drive the production of ‘broadly neutralising’ antibodies that could fight and destroy various mutations of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
‘The development of a vaccine remains the best possibility for ending the HIV pandemic,’ Wits’s senior communications officer, Kemantha Govender, said. ‘However, the researchers say that a major challenge has been the inability to stimulate broadly neutralising antibodies that are able to deal with the enormous variability of HIV.’
The PhD candidate, Jinal Bhiman, was the lead author of the study, which was published in the Nature Medicine journal.
The researchers previously discovered a vulnerable spot on the outer shell of the HIV cell, which enabled the production of the powerful antibodies. During their long-term follow-ups with the patients participating in their study, they found that a glycan, a form of sugar, in a particular position on the protein coat covering the virus cell was a weak spot that could be attacked by the neutralising antibodies.
‘We need to keep looking for a vaccine,’ Goemaere said. ‘It is difficult to predict how long it will take. It is very promising in the lab, but we still need to prove that for humans it can make a difference. It is just going to take time. We cannot bring down this epidemic just by treating all the cases; we need some preventive tools. In the long-term, we do need a vaccine.’