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New Allies in War Against AIDS: Antibodies

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Aug 23, 2011

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.

Though many people are now able to manage HIV, keeping the virus in check and preventing its ravaging effects on their immune systems by using modern medications, the risk persists that the virus will one day outstrip current pharmacological means of reining it in. That's why researchers continue to investigate new and better ways of combating the virus, and hopefully eventually discover a means to immunize HIV negative people and perhaps even eradicate or permanently disable the viral load carried by infected individuals.

Recent research has shown that HIV negative people can decrease their risk of contracting the virus by using some of the same medications that doctors prescribe to treat HIV positive patients. But such prophylactic treatment can be expensive, and there remains a risk of long-term side effects.

Treatment of any sort is only useful if it is administered. Unfortunately, health professionals estimate that up about half of all HIV positive people do not know their status. That means they do not seek treatment, which places them as well as others at risk. Timely medical intervention can minimize damage to the body's systems; also, HIV positive people on an effective regimen are much less apt to communicate the disease to others. A lack of testing and treatment is, therefore, a public health problem.

As such, researchers noted last week, HIV disproportionately affects minorities and the poor, an Aug. 16 Healthday article reported.

The information was the result of a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The update was shared at the CDC's National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta, Healthday reported. Researchers found that poor heterosexuals were also a group at higher risk for HIV, along with men who are gay, bisexual, or MSM ("Men who have Sex with Men") and people who abuse intravenous drugs. Sharing needles can easily transfer HIV, a blood-borne virus, from one individual to another.

Race also appeared to play a role, with infections increasing among African American men.

"The most concerning finding was that new HIV infections among black gay and bisexual men aged 18-to-29 increased 50 percent between 2006 and 2009," the CDC's director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Mike Fenton, told the press on Aug. 15. "That group was the only group in the U.S. to experience significant increases during that time."

Almost half of HIV positive blacks and slightly more than half of HIV positive Latinos were not getting the treatment they need, the researchers said.

Researchers also noted a resurgence of risky behavior across the board.

"We found substantial levels of HIV infections and high-risk behavior, infrequent testing and low awareness," noted the CDC's Dr. Alexandra Oster, who co-authored the new study. "This is a major concern."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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