Is South Africa Making Progress on HIV Vaccine?

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Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi has welcomed a discovery by scientists of potent antibodies that could neutralise and kill multiple strains of HIV.

The discovery of how a KwaZulu-Natal woman’s body responded to her HIV infection by making potent antibodies, called broadly neutralising antibodies, was reported on Monday by the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA). The consortium is made up of AIDS researchers jointly with scientists from the United States.

The study, published in the scientific journal, Nature, describes how the research team found and identified the antibodies in her blood and then duplicated them by cloning the antibodies in the laboratory.

The cloned antibodies were then used in a series of experiments in the laboratory to elucidate the pathway followed by her immune system to make these potent antibodies.

This, according to Professor Lynn Morris, from the National Health Laboratory Service in the Wits School of Pathology, could lead to new HIV vaccine strategies that are able to stimulate the rare precursors of these protective antibodies.

The research was conducted by CAPRISA consortium, including scientists from Wits University, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Cape Town.

The consortium worked jointly with US partners based at the Vaccine Research Centre of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, and Columbia University in New York.

Welcoming the announcement, Minister Motsoaledi said: “We are a step closer to the day where we eventually have a viable vaccine because of what has been announced today.

“This announcement tells us a little more about the HI virus. These studies illustrate the importance of research and need for patience and dedication.

“In 2009, when we unveiled our 10 point programme, number 10 was research and development and we were worried that research and development in South Africa was taking long in the past decades. But we are very proud that almost every year, something is being announced by our scientists in that direction”.

Minister Motsoaledi, who thanked the HIV community for participating in these studies, stressed the need to support scientists in their endeavour to find a vaccine that can stop people from being infected and finding a cure for those already infected.

He noted that the Department of Health has more interest in this development than anyone else in the world, as 30% of all people on treatment in the whole world are in South Africa under the department. He also thanked people living with HIV and Aids, who willingly participated in research studies. “Your selflessness has been helping the world to better understand the HIV virus so that we can prevent transmission and find the cure.”

Leader of the CAPRISA consortium and President of the Medical Research Council, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, said the new insights gained from the KwaZulu-Natal woman into immune responses against HIV bring hope for future HIV prevention and treatment strategies.

“This woman, referred to as CAPRISA 256 (abbreviated to CAP256), is doing well on antiretroviral therapy and continues to attend the CAPRISA clinic regularly,” said Professor Karim.

Just over a year ago, the same team of South African researchers reported in Nature Medicine (also part of the Nature group of journals) on their discovery relating to two other KwaZulu-Natal women, that a shift in the position of one sugar molecule on the surface of the virus led to the development of broadly neutralising antibodies against HIV.

All HIV infected people respond to HIV by making antibodies. In most patients, these antibodies are not able to kill a wide range of HIV – this is described as a lack of neutralisation broadly neutralising antibodies against HIV.

However, in a few infected people, they naturally make antibodies that kill (neutralise) many different kinds of HIV (they are broadly neutralising antibodies).

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