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Study reveals new clues to how a successful HIV vaccine could work

Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have made a discovery that could speed efforts to develop a successful HIV vaccine.

The scientists found that on the HIV envelope protein, at a site important for viral function, a small group of sugar molecules, known as glycans, serves as a key “anchor” for antibodies that can broadly neutralize the virus. Future candidate vaccines are therefore likely to include this glycan cluster among their specific viral targets in order to maximize the chances of stimulating an effective antibody response.

“We learned in this study that grabbing hold of these glycans can be a very important early step in an effective immune response to HIV, and with this knowledge, we believe we can design better candidate vaccines,” said principal investigator Dennis R. Burton, professor of immunology and microbiology at TSRI.

The research, published in Immunity, is part of a broad reverse-engineering effort by scientists around the world to use antibodies isolated from HIV-infected people to guide the development of a successful vaccine.

This approach represents a departure from traditional vaccine designs, which have been developed and tested against HIV in vulnerable populations since the mid-1980s without success. HIV is a hugely variable virus having many hundreds of thousands of different strains. Traditional vaccines generally only attack one strain of the virus and so are typically ineffective in a real-world situation.