Duke May Have Developed the Most Powerful HIV-Destroying Antibody Thus Far


The Duke Human Vaccine Institute may have discovered an HIV-destroying antibody that is capable of neutralizing up to 99% of the virus, which would make it the most powerful one yet found.

A staggering 36.7 million individuals are living with HIV/AIDS around the world and the disease is responsible for over 35 million deaths. For years, researchers around the world have been channeling their efforts into putting an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but because of its ability to rapidly mutate as well as its inclination to hide within human genetic material, it has been a particularly grueling fight. However, research from the Duke Human Vaccine Institute may provide a much needed “win” in this battle.

Recently, the Duke Human Vaccine Institute reported that they have created an “HIV-destroying antibody” capable of neutralizing up to 99% of the virus; according to a press release, this capability “makes it the most powerful HIV-destroying antibody yet found.” The researchers believe that the antibody “would be able to provide and serve as the foundation for an HIV therapy."

In their study, the researchers created an “artificial antibody” by taking two different “HIV-fighting” antibodies found in humans and exchanging the components of each. When speaking with The Chronicle, the study’s first author, LaTonya Williams, PhD, a post-doctoral associate for the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, explained, “We were able to take antibodies from both phases of the study—antibodies that came from memory B cells and antibodies that came from plasma—and we were able to swap out the genes to make a hybrid, or chimeric, antibody that we found was more potent than any of the antibodies that were natural.”

According to Dr. Williams, in the first part of the study, the researchers’ central focus was to isolate the HIV-neutralizing antibodies. They were able to achieve this by utilizing technology that had been developed by the Vaccine Research Center for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back in 2008: using proteins “as bait” in order to “bind” to the antibody-producing memory B cells.

For the next step of their study, the researchers partnered up with George Georgiou, PhD, Laura Jennings Turner Chair of engineering at the University of Texas at Austin to study antibodies in the plasma samples. Dr. Georgiou had created a technique that allowed the researchers to extract antibodies from the plasma. When comparing the two antibodies, the researchers discovered that “the antibodies…found in the memory B cells were related to the antibodies that were in the plasma.”

Antibodies are made up of four parts. Given that the antibodies in the memory B cells and the antibodies in the plasma were related, the researchers posited: Could swapping parts of these antibodies result in a more potent HIV-fighting antibody?

Senior author of the paper, Barton Haynes, MD, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, explained further in the press relese, “We could mix and match and just simply ask, ‘Are there any combinations of artificial hybrid antibodies that are actually more potent than the naturally paired ones that we found from the plasma or the cells?”

The researchers sought to find out and this is what they learned: One of the artificial antibodies that the researchers created allegedly “neutralized 100% of the HIV strains” in one laboratory at Harvard University.

This finding is particularly promising because the specific strains that the antibody were tested on, clade C viruses, are the strains that dominate Africa, which is arguably where HIV is most prevalent, according to Dr. Williams. In fact, South Africa “has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS compared to any other country in the world.”

Dr. Haynes believes that this antibody can potentially be used to inform the development of a long-awaited HIV vaccine. “One of our major goals is to make a vaccine, so we’re interested in the sequence of how these antibodies develop and designing a vaccine to induce these kinds of antibodies,” Dr. Haynes said.

In order to get there, a few things need to be taken care of first. According to Dr. Haynes, there are areas in which the antibody can be improved, such as: strengthening the antibody’s potency and extending the length of time that it can persist within the body. In addition, researchers must acquire US Food and Drug Administration “approval for further testing.”

“The whole effort to cure people of HIV infection is to give them a drug to stimulate the virus to show itself, and then an antibody like this could go in and be used to target any kind of variant of a virus,” Dr. Haynes concluded. Indeed, an HIV vaccine could significantly reduce the death toll in the hardest hit countries such as South Africa, and reduce mortality rates across the world.

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