Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Genes Are Us

HIV

(Photo: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock)

Why the HIV Vaccine Is Not a Pipe Dream

• January 10, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock)

Despite 30 years of failure on an evolving viral puzzle, there’s reason to believe we’ll one day live in a world without HIV.

It’s no secret that HIV is among the most devastating viruses plaguing humanity today. The World Health Organization puts the number of HIV deaths so far at more than 36 million people. Another 35 million are currently infected, including one in 20 adults in Sub-Saharan Africa. But don’t we know how to prevent viral infections? We have effective vaccines against many viruses. Why don’t we yet have one for HIV?

With an effective vaccine, we could make HIV join the ranks of formerly fearsome viruses that are now gone in most of the world—like the viruses that cause polio, smallpox, and measles. Considering the damage that viruses cause, an effective vaccine is a stunningly simple and reliable means of preventing death and suffering. When an effort to remove a bat colony from our home went wrong a few years ago, my family went to the clinic for our rabies shots—and then out for ice cream. We all slept well that night, knowing that, while rabies is fatal, it is also 100 percent preventable thanks to a vaccine. A vaccine that made HIV infections as preventable as rabies or polio would be one of the century’s greatest medical and humanitarian successes.

While we’ve been hearing promises about a vaccine for three decades, many recent insights into the immune escape mechanism of HIV result from the applications of new DNA analysis technology that has come online only within the past five years.

There is no effective HIV vaccine, but that’s not for lack of effort. After three decades of intense study, researchers have recognized that HIV presents challenges that are “unprecedented in the history of vaccinology.” Fortunately, there is reason for optimism. Within just the past five years, new biotechnologies have resulted in major breakthroughs in our understanding of HIV’s vulnerabilities. Before these recent developments, some researchers wondered whether an effective vaccine would ever be possible. Now, although a workable vaccine may not be exactly just around the corner, scientists have strong reasons to believe that we will eventually have one.

Most vaccines against viruses work by prompting our bodies to produce antibodies that latch on to and neutralize the virus. Figuring out where on the virus to target antibodies is a critical issue in the development of a vaccine. A vaccine is like the scrap of clothing investigators use to put a bloodhound on to a fugitive’s scent; by presenting specific viral fragments, a vaccine trains your body’s immune system to recognize the virus. A key challenge is to include the right viral parts in the vaccine, so that the immune system makes antibodies that effectively target and broadly neutralize all of the different mutational forms of HIV.

To be effective, an antibody has to target a part of the virus that is 1) critical to virus function and 2) easily accessible. Unfortunately, in the case of HIV, some critical parts of the virus are unusually well hidden and inaccessible to most antibodies. More importantly, many critically functional parts of the virus are hard to pin down. HIV is able to rapidly evolve new variations of important components in a nanoscale Houdini act called “mutational escape,” becoming a moving target for the immune system.

After several decades of little progress on a vaccine, many researchers had begun to doubt that broadly neutralizing, anti-HIV antibodies were possible. But in 2009, using new technologies to isolate and copy antibody-producing cells from HIV-infected patients, two groups of researchers discovered potent, broadly neutralizing antibodies. By showing that such antibodies exist, these studies gave researchers renewed hope that a vaccine against HIV is indeed feasible.

WITH THE DISCOVERY OF potent antibodies against HIV, researchers have been able to focus in on the details of how HIV evades the body’s defenses, with the aim of identifying new weak points that can be targeted by a vaccine. A study released in December, led by researchers at the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center, identified a critical part of the virus that appears to play an important role in the mutational escape process. The researchers exposed vaccinated macaques to a mixture of different strains of the monkey version of HIV, Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV). They found that a particular pair of mutations in SIV allowed the virus to evade vaccine-induced antibodies, and, remarkably, those mutations had the same effect on HIV. The researchers concluded that they had discovered signs of “a fundamental mechanism of immune escape.”

Discoveries like this will help researchers focus their vaccine-design efforts, especially in the aftermath of another failed HIV vaccine trial in 2013. It’s worth noting that, while we’ve been hearing promises about a vaccine for three decades, many recent insights into the immune escape mechanism of HIV result from the applications of new DNA analysis technology that has come online only within the past five years, and so we should stay optimistic.

Even without an effective HIV vaccine, worldwide public health efforts are making a dent in the death toll of HIV. Thanks to better therapies, more people are living with HIV, rather than dying from it. The heroic humanitarian efforts that have made these therapies available to nearly 10 million people deserve our admiration. But we shouldn’t give up our hope for a world in which HIV becomes a disease of the past, eliminated with a simple, inexpensive, but effective vaccine.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.