Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Genes Are Us


(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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.

December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.

December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.

December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?

December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.

December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.

December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.

December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.

December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.

December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.

December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.

December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.

December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.

December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.

December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.

December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.

December 15 • 12:32 PM

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

December 15 • 12:00 PM

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.

December 15 • 10:00 AM

The 2016 Presidential Race Has Already Started

And this is the most exciting part.

December 15 • 8:00 AM

The Second Life of Old iPods

Why is it that old iPods are suddenly cool—and pricey again?

December 15 • 6:00 AM

The Lifelong Consequences of Rape

The long-term psychological and physical effects of the experience are devastating. And they’re likely exacerbated by the shame our culture insists on perpetuating.

December 15 • 4:00 AM

Mating Mindset Interferes With Attempts to Stop Smoking

Taiwanese researchers find photos of attractive women put men in an immediate-gratification state of mind.

December 15 • 2:00 AM

Where Innovation Thrives

Innovation does not require an urban area or a suburban area—it can happen in the city or in a small town. What it requires is open knowledge networks and the movement of people from different places.

Follow us

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

There’s More Than One Way to Be Good at Math

Mathematical ability isn’t one single skill set; there are indeed many ways to be “good at math,” research shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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