The path to an HIV vaccine

What we don't know about HIV may lead us to the right path for finding a vaccine.

By Mike King | Emory Health | Feb. 28, 2013

Bali Pulendran

Candler Professor Bali Pulendran’s research on the immune response has helped identify how individual immune cells produce specific responses to HIV. Related Story: "Emory to receive $6 million for AIDS vaccine research"

Eric Hunter
Eric Hunter’s research focuses on the host and viral factors involved in HIV heterosexual transmission and early viral disease in African populations, with applications for HIV vaccine development. Expert Profile: Eric Hunter
Guido Silvestri
Guido Silvestri studies how simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV, a close-cousin of HIV) causes disease in some non-human primates and not in others. Related Story: "SIV's natural hosts can reveal how humans might better manage HIV infection"
Max Cooper
Max Cooper focuses on the antibody-producing cells of the immune system and is currently applying his research on lamprey immune proteins to studies of HIV. Related Story: "Present at the creation of modern immunology"
Susan Allen
Susan Allen's research on heterosexual transmission of HIV in Africa has established interventions that reduce its transmission and provide clues for developing a vaccine. Related Story: "What Rwanda has taught us about HIV testing"
Rafi Ahmed
Rafi Ahmed has made significant discoveries about how immune memory cells are created and how long they survive, knowledge that is crucial to developing an HIV vaccine. Related Story: "Emory Vaccine Center receives $7 million from NIH"
Rama Amara
Rama Amara guides a research program aimed at developing both a protective vaccine for uninfected people and a therapeutic one for those already infected by HIV. Related Story: "Moving the HIV vaccine forward"
Cynthia Derdeyn
Cynthia Derdeyn investigates how diversity of glycoproteins of HIV’s outer envelope can influence HIV transmission and alter antibody responses to the virus. Related Story: "Scientists spotlight HIV virus transmitter"
Emory Vaccine Center scientists are working together to understand how to induce neutralizing antibody responses in virus-fighting cells.

Isolated outside its habitat and under the refractive prowess of an electron microscope, HIV has earned grudging respect from the scientists who study it.

HIV consists of just two strands of genetic material together with a small number of enzymes wrapped inside a viral envelope. It measures just 1/10,000th of a millimeter in diameter. The glycoprotein spikes on its outer envelope give the impression that the virus is reaching out to glom on to anything in its path, which is exactly what it is programmed to do. For a retrovirus like HIV to survive, it must get inside host cells and use the machinery of those cells to reproduce.

If nothing else, after three decades of studying HIV, we know that it can perform that task with remarkable efficiency—fusing to lymphocytes and other protective cells in the body, injecting its viral core into them, and assembling thousands of new viral cores that deploy and destroy the human immune system. If HIV is left untreated, infections—even the most common kind—run rampant, wasting, then killing, the body.

Scientists at Emory and elsewhere have designed drugs to help people with HIV live longer. But the quest to eradicate the virus—to come up with a vaccine that renders it harmless—remains a major, and often frustrating, scientific challenge.

Despite a wealth of information about HIV, we still don't know how to develop an effective protective vaccine against it, in part because the outer envelope is able to mutate in ways that are different in each infected person.

 "We have made great strides in public health and prevention, in drugs and treatment protocols as well as in vaccine development—all of these being areas where Emory has made major contributions—but we may be at the point where we need to know what we don't know about HIV," says Emory's Eric Hunter.

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