A New Weapon Against HIV: Tiny Antigens from a Virus’s DNA

ADAPEX: What It Is, and How It Works Assessment is the next step. Now that the CDC has found that these new proteins are probably useful, the agency needs to do more research. One…

A New Weapon Against HIV: Tiny Antigens from a Virus's DNA

ADAPEX: What It Is, and How It Works

Assessment is the next step. Now that the CDC has found that these new proteins are probably useful, the agency needs to do more research. One such effort is ongoing at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), an NIH unit. That study is trying to figure out which kinds of proteins might have the most effective properties for immunization. By 2018, it hopes to learn which ones might be efficacious and how to design a vaccine that uses them to boost the immune system.

Michael Grebenc, a veteran bioengineer and vaccine designer at NIAID, says, “We’re doing trials right now, and it’s a big time trial. We’ll see in four or five years where we stand. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

But not everyone is so enthusiastic. Two major studies have been conducted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to determine if injections of these proteins might help with HIV prevention. The results are mixed. The CFL article just published says that data from one study showed very promising results, but the other didn’t show significant gains.

NHLBI is a division of the National Institutes of Health. One of its divisions is “Biomarkers and Systems Medicine” (BMSM), which is responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of vaccines that might be able to prevent or treat various diseases. BMSM is run by James Comer, a researcher who specializes in examining the role of cell signaling in disease.

Comer feels more than a little ambivalent about the proposal to have vaccines made from HIV proteins. He acknowledges that it will be important to figure out how the highly active ingredients might interact with the other antigens in the vaccine, and whether they might differ significantly in potency. “I don’t disagree with the science,” he says. “I just don’t think we know enough about the safety of the vaccine.”

The Canadian report notes that there is no way to know how many of the proteins that have been found will make the vaccine. And even if all three can be used, it’s not clear whether they will offer a potent enough immune response. Given that these proteins are rich in antigens that could otherwise be used, how well could they work to produce robust immune responses?

Why These Protein Epiparticles Work

These proteins have been around since before most of us could even say HIV. They are made by making a small amount of DNA and shuffling it around in a way that it will bind with two adjacent antigens found in the body. As a result, people infected with the HIV virus tend to have surprisingly strong immune systems. More than 60 percent of people who are infected with HIV can fight off the virus.

In fact, these are the very proteins that would be in most vaccines designed to prevent or treat the disease. One of the proteins is known as icilin, while the other is called carisoprotein (alpha). This represents the types of antibodies that produce much better responses against virus-based disease than the antibodies produced by the immune system.

“This protein is absolutely vital in conquering HIV infection,” the study states. Because it’s made in a special way, it can be modified by biology to create antigens, like the type found in the body. Of the three proteins researchers found, icilin has the highest number of known antibodies that can bind to HIV (96) compared to all the other proteins combined (37).

The only drawback of this protein strategy is that it could pose some risks. Most potential uses of these proteins involve injecting millions of individuals with the vaccine, so this would be an extremely complex undertaking. Also, icilin already has side effects. To keep other risky consequences from occurring, it would be necessary to use a combination of the vaccines in order to produce the best possible immune response.

The next step after these studies conclude is to design vaccines that use the new proteins. “Hopefully, some day we will have truly effective vaccines that can be given to people,” says Raymond Perez, director of BMSM. “I think it’s also important to remember the value of changing HIV, so that no HIV becomes resistant to these immunotherapies.”

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