By Kounteya Sinha
New Delhi, India
The Translational Health Sciences and Technology Institute (THSTI), an autonomous institute under the department of biotechnology (DBT), and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), have signed an agreement to jointly establish, operate and fund this HIV vaccine design programme.
The programme will primarily focus on one of the greatest scientific challenges of AIDS vaccine design and development – the search of antibodies capable of neutralizing a broad spectrum of circulating HIV strains.
Bringing hope to the idea of developing an effective vaccine against the deadly virus, scientists have been working on powerful new antibodies that neutralise all major forms of the virus. An antibody is an infection–fighting protein produced by our immune system when it detects harmful substances like viruses and bacteria.
Scientists say these antibodies would ultimately reveal the Achilles heel of the virus. Studies have found that antibodies target a stable portion of the virus that does not frequently mutate – a defence mechanism that has till now helped the virus escape earlier developed experimental vaccines.
Experts in this Indian lab will now look at new antibodies and how they bind to the virus. This will tell scientists which part of the virus to target with vaccines. The idea is to create artificially synthesized mimics of their targets on HIV, to be used in vaccines to elicit similar actions and teach the immune system how to thwart HIV infection.
"With 7,100 people contracting HIV every day, effective tools to prevent infection are indispensable to the fight against HIV and AIDS. A broadly effective AIDS vaccine would be a powerful asset to efforts to arrest the spread of HIV," said M K Bhan, secretary of DBT.
This collaborative programme will participate in a coordinated, global effort to create replicas of virus targets in the laboratory for use as immunogens, which are the active ingredients of vaccines. The programme will have the task of developing, testing and then implementing strategies to rapidly screen large numbers of immunogens against HIV–1 (dominant strain) and to prioritize them for further evaluation in preclinical studies.
"We are very excited about the launch of this collaboration," said Seth Berkley, CEO of IAVI. Other institutions participating in this partnership include the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
Indians, too, are being screened for such effective HIV slaying antibodies. The country has its share of "late progressors" or "elite controllers" – people infected with HIV who stay healthy for years without requiring life–saving antiretroviral treatment (ART). About one in 300 people with HIV is an elite controller.
Meanwhile, another fascinating community – mainly comprising women – has also got scientists in India excited. Called "exposed sero negative" these are women who have, for years, had sex with HIVpositive, Condom–refusing husbands, but never got infected. Many have also had babies who are not HIV–positive. Scientists are studying these elite controllers to see whether they carry special genes, which prevent the virus from multiplying in their bodies. The cure for AIDS may come from members of these two communities, scientists believe.