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Wits scientists make significant breakthrough with HIV vaccine

by , 22 November 2013

The fight against HIV and AIDS has received a major boost. This after two Wits scientists yesterday revealed that they've made major inroads into the quest to find a vaccine to prevent HIV infection. Here are the details…

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

The ongoing research is about an HIV vaccine.

Researchers say an HIV vaccine is needed especially considering that although condoms and male circumcision work to prevent HIV, about 1000 South Africans are still infected every day.

Researchers make major inroads into the quest to find a vaccine to prevent HIV infection

The report explains that two things are essential for an effective vaccine:

The first one is that scientists need to know how to make broadly neutralising (special) antibodies. Broadly neutralising antibodies fight all the strains of the virus.

At this point, they know that only some infected people produce these antibodies and it takes their bodies three years to do so.
Dr Penny 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.

In the report, Moore says that: “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,” said Maria Papathanasopoulos, a pathology professor.

This year, Papathanasopoulos made impressive progress.

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.

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

This breakthrough could aid the fight against HIV and Aids in terms of developing a vaccine

This is especially important when you consider the fact that Statistics South Africa estimates the total number of South Africans currently living with HIV is about 5.26 million.

Health24 reports that Stats SA estimates that 200,000 people will die from Aids-related complications this year and the total number of people living with HIV has gone up by more than a million – from 4 million in 2002, to more than five million in 2013.

It’ll be interesting to see how the planned human trials will pan out. If scientists are successful, the fight against HIV and AIDS will get another major boost.

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