For many in the fight against HIV and AIDS, a preventative vaccine is the scientific holy grail.
While a vaccine is still years away, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego have made a breakthrough that could speed up the process.
The HIV virus is notoriously difficult to beat because it has a unique shield that protects it from antibodies – the little defenders in our blood that fight off infection.
Dennis Burton is a professor and chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute. "This outer protein coat of the virus is covered in sugars, explains Burton. "And it turns out that antibodies struggle in sticking to sugars."
In order to maneuver through the HIV virus' sugar coat and attack it, our antibodies need to have long, finger-like structures. Humans can technically make that kind of antibodies, just not very consistently or well. But cows are really good at producing them.
In their study, cows were vaccinated with multiple strains of HIV and the results were better than expected. The cows were able to defeat virtually all of the strains.
There's still a long road ahead to a vaccine but this was a productive step forward. The next step is to trying to get human antibodies to act like cow antibodies. Burton says one way of doing could be to "actually take the piece of the cow antibodies that does so well and we can transplant it onto a human’s antibodies. It's just a little piece of protein."
Burton's study and other announcements from HIV/AIDS researchers have many hopeful that a vaccine could be a reality in the foreseeable future.
Diane Anderson-Minshall is Editorial Director for The Advocate magazine and Editor-in-chief at HIV Plus Magazine. "It would be an enormous game changer because doctors could take the onice off of people in deciding their risk," says Anderson-Minshall. "We can eliminate the stigma of that for people who have to explain to their doctors why they want to go on PrEP, which we know has been a problem."
A vaccine would mean a lot of Southern California communities. "About half of the state's HIV people living with HIV live in LA county," says Anderson-Minshall. "And of those, half of them don't engage in healthcare." She also says that Southern California's immigrant and transgender communities struggle the most to get healthcare.
As researchers continue working for a vaccine that could make huge difference around the world, local advocates keep hope alive. "The idea that we could do the same thing with HIV is astounding, especially for someone like me who did live through the '80s when all of my friends died," says Anderson-Minshall.
Quotes edited for clarity