Taking On HIV

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Published: April 13, 2015 1:00:57 AM

A new approach brings down the viral load in affected individual, promises a vaccine, too

It has been a good week for medicine. Days after a strong vaccine potential for cancer was reported by US-based scientists, a new, stronger form of treatment for HIV—with implications for vaccine development as well—has been reported by Nature magazine. The treatment is based on an antibody that can reduce the viral load of individuals.

The approach, called passive immunisation, involves introducing an HIV antibody called 3BNC117 in the blood of an individual with an HIV infection. Researchers at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases tested four different doses in 29 people—17 had HIV, 15 of whom were on anti-retroviral therapy (ART). Individuals who received the highest dose showed a reduction of HIV load by 8-250 times for four weeks. Now that a breakthrough has been made, it needs to be studied if the treatment form could have longer-term effects in controlling HIV and if the antibody can be used to develop a vaccine. Passive immunisation has been effective technique in controlling HIV load in monkeys and mice but hadn’t, up till now, returned the same encouraging results in humans. There are two major concerns with the approach. First, HIV is one of the fastest-mutating viruses known to man and there is reason to believe that it can mutate fast enough for any one antibody to eliminate it—in this test, the efficacy of the antibody slipped significantly in four weeks. So, a concoction of antibodies, attacking a host of HIV-surface antigens would probably be a more effective approach in people who already have HIV present in their body. Second, HIV is a far greater problem in poor nations—many sub-Saharan African nations are the worst-hit—and passive immunisation could be a form of treatment way beyond the means of these nations, given how costly it is to isolate antibodies, even at a commercial scale. The question of cost is one that must be addressed if this approach goes beyond being just a prototype.

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