The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced this week that a “remarkable” breakthrough has been made in the study of preventing and treating the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), according to a press release posted on the agency’s official website.
The breakthrough centers around the discovery of a powerful antibody named N6 that is highly effective in both binding to the surface of the HIV virus and neutralizing it. The former has proved elusive in the past.
“Identifying broadly neutralizing antibodies against HIV has been difficult because the virus rapidly changes its surface proteins to evade recognition by the immune system,” the press release explains.
The antibody was initially discovered in an HIV-positive person and has since proven to potentially neutralize 98 percent of HIV isolates, “including 16 of 20 strains resistant to other antibodies of the same class,” according to the press release.
“The remarkable breadth and potency of this antibody…make it an attractive candidate for further development to potentially treat or prevent HIV infection,” researchers with NIAID said.
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Researchers have had previous success with other antibodies, but N6 appears to be more effective.
For instance, in 2010, an antibody called VRC01 was discovered by scientists at NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC). VRC01 blocks approximately 90 percent of HIV strains from infecting human cells.
“Like VRC01, N6 blocks infection by binding to a part of the HIV envelope called the CD4 binding site, preventing the virus from attaching itself to immune cells,” NIAID explains.
The new discovery has potential benefits far beyond preventing and treating HIV as well. Studying exactly how N6 works could potentially lead to breakthroughs in other anti-viral antibodies.
“The scientists, led by Mark Connors, M.D., of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), also tracked the evolution of N6 over time to understand how it developed the ability to potently neutralize nearly all HIV strains,” the press release states. “This information will help inform the design of vaccines to elicit such broadly neutralizing antibodies.”
Tracking the evolution of N6 is a big part of understanding how it works.
“Findings from the current study showed that N6 evolved a unique mode of binding that depends less on a variable area of the HIV envelope known as the V5 region and focuses more on conserved regions, which change relatively little among HIV strains,” NIAID explains. “This allows N6 to tolerate changes in the HIV envelope, including the attachment of sugars in the V5 region, a major mechanism by which HIV develops resistance to other VRC01-class antibodies.”
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VRC01 is currently being considered for clinical trials to determine if intravenous infusions of the antibody can safely prevent HIV infection in humans.
If further research confirms N6’s potential, clinical trials for it are sure to follow.
“Due to its potency, N6 may offer stronger and more durable prevention and treatment benefits, and researchers may be able to administer it subcutaneously (into the fat under the skin) rather than intravenously,” the press release explains. “In addition, its ability to neutralize nearly all HIV strains would be advantageous for both prevention and treatment strategies.”
AIDS was first discovered in 1981, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. However, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not use the term AIDS until 1982, and the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses did not give the virus that causes AIDS the designation of HIV until 1986.
The Department of Health & Human Services estimates that there are currently 1.2 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS, and 36.7 million people suffer from the disease throughout the world.
The N6 HIV breakthrough could potentially offer hope to many of those people and drastically reduce the number of HIV/AIDS cases over time.