Researchers may have discovered a way to protect against the transmission of HIV--a worldwide epidemic that now infects about 35 million people.
Nobel Laureate Dr. David Baltimore and colleagues at his Caltech lab are injecting mice with a powerful prophylaxis called VIP. And guess what? It works. Caltech postdoctoral fellow Alex Balazs is heading up this groundbreaking research. So is it now time to test this approach in humans?
Click the link below and watch the video above to hear the latest on HIV prevention research. And don't forget to join the discussion by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
DAVID BALTIMORE: Nobody’s ever done anything like this before. And if we can really intervene in the spread of the HIV epidemic, we can begin to put HIV back in the box, get rid of it from the human context. And that would be a great contribution to public health.
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. There are an estimated 35 to 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide. More than two-thirds of those cases come out of Sub-saharan Africa, and there are 50,000 new cases in the U.S. each year. Since the epidemic started in the early '80s, there've been many false starts, would-be cures, hopes (and lives) lost. But now, Dr. David Baltimore, biology professor at Caltech, thinks he may be able to prevent the transmission of HIV. He received the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of reverse transcriptase, an enzyme used by retroviruses like the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
DB: With this procedure we’ve developed, which we call VIP, we are able to protect mice against infection with a huge dose of HIV.
CSM: VIP. Vectored immunoprophylaxis. It's name is telling. It's a prophylaxis--a preventive measure--that uses viral vectors to guide cells to make antibodies against HIV. Now these aren't the vectors you learned about in calculus. The word vector's latin for carrier. So, in VIP, genes are piggybacked on innocuous viruses, and they're delivered to targeted cells in the body. It's not a vaccine. It's something totally new.
DB: We know that the body’s own immune system is not good at making antibodies against HIV. That’s been proven over and over again. So we said, well, let’s take these antibodies that really do work, and we’ll direct the immune system, or we’ll direct some system in the body, to make them. We first tried to make the immune system do it, we found we really couldn’t work out that technology. So we said, well there are vectors, viruses, which will carry these genes into the muscle and the muscle can be the site of making antibodies. So we tried that and I must say we were amazed at how well it worked.
CSM: This is truly groundbreaking stuff. Dr. Baltimore's lab may have found the game changer in HIV prevention research.
DB: VIP is a bit heroic, nobody’s ever used a vector in this way. Nobody’s ever used genes in this way. And so we’re very much on the outer edge of technology but I think that’s where we have to be today because I think the more standard technologies just haven’t worked.
CSM: If you've been paying close attention, there's probably one thing you're wondering. How are they doing this research in mice? We're talking about the human immunodeficiency virus, right? Mice can't get human diseases! Ah, but they can if they have a human immune system.
DB: We use a special strain of mice that doesn’t have its own immune system and can’t reject a graft of human cells. So we put in the human cells and now we have a target for HIV to grow in those mice.
CSM: And how well does it work?
DB: This antibody is absolutely protective against HIV infection. It’s miraculous. We can put in huge doses of HIV and the animals don’t get infected. And so we have a prima facie case for saying that we could protect humans against the transmission of HIV if humans act like mice.
CSM: I hope you're as excited about the research coming out of Dr. Baltimore's lab as I am. Let me know your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter, or leave a comment on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!