Good news: Scientists identify antibody that neutralizes nearly all HIV strains
In response to the millions of Americans who currently need some sort of reminder that 2016 wasn’t a year of pure garbage and heartache, scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the discovery of an antibody neutralizing nearly all HIV strains Tuesday. The antibody, known as N6, successfully neutralized 98 percent of tested, isolated HIV strains and is thus “an attractive candidate for further development to potentially treat or prevent HIV infection,” according to NIH researchers’ news release.
A key reason finding antibodies to fight HIV strains has been so difficult for scientists over the years is that the virus is able to rapidly transform its surface proteins in order to avoid recognition by the immune system. The closest scientists have come to discovering an antibody as powerful as N6 was an antibody called VRC01, discovered in 2010 by scientists at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)’s vaccine research center. VRC01 was able to prevent roughly 90 percent of HIV strains from infecting human cells.
In the NIH’s Tuesday news release, scientists write that, like VRC01, N6 is able to “block infection by binding to a part of the HIV envelope called the CD4 binding site, preventing the virus from attaching itself to immune cells.”
The key to N6 is that it’s able to attach to parts of the HIV envelope that change the least when the virus transforms to avoid immune system recognition. The antibody is additionally very adaptable and able to withstand changes to the HIV envelope so it can stay attached to sugars in the envelope’s V5 region, a part of the HIV envelope that allows it to resist other antibodies like the VRC01-class, but not N6.
So, what does this all mean? According to NIH researchers, “N6 may offer stronger and more durable prevention and treatment benefits” and could be administered relatively easily through subcutaneous injections. The discovery of N6 is a victory for sexual health, as it could potentially allow individuals to preemptively protect themselves, but also serve as a treatment for those who are already affected.
For decades, stigma and homophobia stinted research into treatment, cures, and preventative medication for HIV. There were roughly 36.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS globally at the end of 2015, according to UNAIDS. For all the steps backward we’ve taken in 2016, this huge discovery serves as a major step forward, especially for the LGBTQ community and those in sub-Sahara Africa disproportionately affected by HIV.