New Allies in War Against AIDS: Antibodies
The newest leads in fighting AIDS have brought researchers back to the natural agents that have fended off disease of all sorts throughout much of the history of life on Earth: Antibodies.
An Aug. 18 RelaxNews article said that 17 antibodies had piqued the interest of researchers looking for new leads in fighting off, and perhaps one day defeating, HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS.
The article referenced a paper published that same day in Nature, a British science journal. The paper talked about antibodies capable of a so-called "broadly neutralizing" effect, meaning that they are capable of tackling not just extremely specific pathogens, but also variations on that same disease-causing agent. In the case of HIV, the virus mutates so quickly that the body’s natural defenses cannot keep up. Moreover, the disease targets T cells, a crucial component of the immune system itself, meaning that as the virus progresses the body’s immune system is less and less capable of fighting off HIV, or any other disease. For that reason, patients with AIDS are vulnerable to a number of opportunistic infections.
"Antibodies are the foot soldiers in the immune system, latching onto viral or microbial intruders and tagging them for destruction by specialized ’killer’ cells," the RelaxNews article noted.
But while the use of antibodies to help fight disease, or even immunize people by "training" the body’s natural defenses to recognize and attack microbes, is a longstanding weapon in the medical arsenal, a cure or even an immunization for HIV has been elusive.
"Most antiviral vaccines depend on stimulating the antibody response to work effectively," explained Scripps Research Institute’s Dennis Burton. "Because of HIV’s remarkable variability, an effective HIV vaccine will probably have to elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies. This is why we expect that these new antibodies will prove to be valuable assets to the field of AIDS vaccine research."
But disease and immunity is an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse similar to the way that any set of competitors develop new and better means of dealing with one another. Predators develop better ways of catching prey, and the prey, under pressure to adapt and evolve, finds new ways of foiling predators. So too on the microbial scale. Pathogens find ways of circumventing the body’s immune system, but some individuals are gifted with mutations or other natural advantages that give them an edge in fighting back against infectious bacteria or viruses.
Such rare, but crucial, natural advantages lay at the heart of the new research. RelaxNews reported that the antibodies in question "were isolated from four individuals with HIV, an achievement similar to looking for a needle in a haystack as only a very small number of people produce these powerful molecules."
AIDS has been a health crisis for 30 years now. Globally, the epidemic has claimed 30 million lives, the article noted, with 34 million more people living with the virus.