Wits HIV breakthrough

21 November 2013 - 02:51 By KATHARINE CHILD
HIV (green) infection illustration.
HIV (green) infection illustration.
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

Two Wits scientists have made major inroads into the quest to find a vaccine to prevent HIV infection.

Wits researchers Maria Papathanasopoulos and Dr Penny Moore will present a research lecture on their internationally recognised work at Wits University on Tuesday.

Though condoms and male circumcision work to prevent HIV, about 1000 South Africans are still infected every day, said Papathanasopoulos.

"That's why we need a vaccine."

Since 1988, there have been 218 trials worldwide for a potential HIV vaccine. Nearly all have failed.

Two things are essential for an effective vaccine:

Scientists need to know how to make broadly neutralising (special) antibodies.

Broadly neutralising antibodies fight all the strains of the virus.

Only some infected people produce these antibodies and it takes their bodies three years to do so.

Moore, a virologist, was part of ground-breaking research last year that showed how two women's bodies changed and began producing the special antibodies.

Moore said: "If we give the body the right instructions [in a vaccine] it can create those antibodies."

The second thing scientists need to do to produce a vaccine is to give people the right kind of HIV protein that ''instructs'' the body how to make these antibodies.

"This protein is one of the most complex proteins we have had to make in the laboratory, and it has taken 30-odd years for scientists to get a clear picture of what it looks like," Papathanasopoulos said.

This year, Papathanasopoulos, a pathology professor, made the kind of progress that some scientists only dream about.

She injected the protein into rabbits and, as she had hoped, it caused their bodies to produce the correct broadly neutralising antibodies needed to fight all strains of the virus.

The groundbreaking Wits research could be a major leap forward in the global fight to develop an HIV vaccine.

Next year, Papathanasopoulos hopes to take research further and inject the protein into monkeys to see if their bodies will make the antibodies.

If the monkeys respond well to the protein and produce the right antibodies, then Papathanasopoulos can test it on humans.