Wilton Williams looking at lab equipment
Photo Credit
Duke University

Discovery of an I-Shaped Antibody Opens New Avenue to HIV Vaccine

About 38 million people worldwide are living with AIDS. Pharmaceutical treatments can keep the disease in check, but a vaccine remains elusive despite decades of concerted effort. However, a recent discovery at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) brings the goal of an effective vaccine within reach.

One of the ways that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, outwits the immune system is by dressing like a wolf in sheep’s clothing: It covers itself with sugar molecules, called glycans, just as the body’s own cells do. The disguise isn’t perfect, but it gives the virus a deadly head start on the immune system.

“By the time the immune system realizes the virus is an invader, it’s too late,” says Wilton Williams, Ph.D., director of the DHVI Viral Genetic Analysis Core Facility and associate professor of surgery in the Duke University School of Medicine. “The virus has spread to areas where the immune system can’t get to it.”

The disguise also makes it difficult to create a vaccine since a vaccine’s job is to help the immune system recognize a pathogen. But how can the immune system recognize a virus covered with the same sorts of glycans that also cover human cells?