First Infant Study of Its Kind Reveals HIV Vaccine Potential

Research involving infants exposed to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) offers new insight into naturally produced antibodies.

The exact mechanism by which the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) continues to dodge the host’s immune system response has baffled experts for years. But research involving infants exposed to the disease offered new insight into naturally produced antibodies.

Although researchers are getting closer to an HIV vaccine, challenges continue to delay the process. It’s believed that an effective vaccine will provoke the body to make broadly neutralizing antibodies, which are a specialized type of immune protein. It’s understood that some people naturally produce these proteins when they are infected with HIV, however, this only occurs years after exposure. Therefore, this vaccine would need to cause this within months.

Physicians from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington worked with a researcher from the University of Nairobi in Kenya to study infants infected with HIV less than one year prior. Published in the journal Cell, this is the first and only study to look at these HIV-neutralizing antibodies in infants.

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Looking at the babies who were born to HIV-positive mothers in Nairobi, it became apparent that infants can produce the broadly neutralizing antibodies within the first year of infection. This means that it requires much less somatic hypermutation in order to trigger the antibody response than it would in adults.

But how are these responses different in babies than adults? Julie Overbaugh, PhD, a member of the Human Biology Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, explained “we could document a case in infants where a broadly neutralizing antibody developed in a time frame and in a way that is something that we could consider mimicking with a vaccine.”

The results also showed that no one antibody dominates the immune response, but instead it’s polyclonal, which could make it more difficult to evade.

So as researchers continue to design an HIV vaccine, they may want to take the infant immune responses into consideration.

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