Okay, for real, you guys– unless I am on here screaming “OMFG WE CURED AIDS” “OMFG WE HAVE AN HIV VACCINE AHHHH” etc, promise me you all wont believe anything you read via AP or USATODAY or any of that crap?

There is a neat paper out in Science (not available even to normal Science subscribers, only *xpress* members *rolleyes*) on a couple of new, neat HIV-1 antibodies.

Broad and Potent Neutralizing Antibodies from an African Donor Reveal a New HIV-1 Vaccine Target

Now, this paper contains a lot of hard work. I think some of the things they did are weird (“first we did A, then we did B”, and I dont see the logic that led them from A to B, weird reagent choices, this is a fishing expedition– there is no reason they should get anything viable at the end of all this hard work, so I have no idea how they got this study funded, nor would I want it to by my thesis project, hell I wouldnt even agree to do this project, BUT its clearly a hellovalot of hard work), but thats something for me to talk to the authors about.

Long story short– In this one patient described in this paper, they found two antibodies that can neutralize a whole bunch of different kinds of HIV-1. Like, a TON of different kinds of HIV-1. Every subtype, a few recombinants, awesome! Plus, they recognize envelope trimers, not monomers, so they really are neat new reagents, if they ever make them available to anyone else. Hurray.

These two antibodies do NOT ‘prevent HIV-1 from causing severe AIDS‘. While its true the antibodies were discovered in someone not progressing to AIDS very quickly, there is *zero* science in this paper to support that statement. That claim is *not* what they were exploring in this paper. If this kind of antibody is so critical for slow disease progression, we would have found it by now, in many other patients.

These two antibodies target an exposed, conserved region of envelope. This does NOT mean that this region is a ‘potential new Achilles heel in the virus’s defences‘. Lets say you and I both get Swine Flu this year. You and I will make totally different antibodies to Swine Flu. Say you and I get the Swine Flu vaccination this year. You and I will make totally different antibodies to the Swine Flu vaccine. I cant *force* your body to make a particular antibody. Clearly, HIV-1 cant either– if antibodies like the two that were just found are so great, so exposed, so conserved… why doesnt everyone have them? Why would you expect everyone to make them from a vaccine? The only way to force you and I to make the same antibody, is to take B-cells from you/me, do gene therapy, and put them back into you/me and hope they survive. We have *had* this ‘option’ against HIV-1 for a long time. These arent the first broadly neutralizing antibodies. And gene therapy is still a non-viable ‘solution’ to HIV/AIDS.

These antibodies might help us design better vaccines, somehow, in the future. Maybe.

The ‘best’ thing I can say about these antibodies disease-wise, at this time, is that theoretically they would be viable anti-HIV-1 therapies. Like PRO 140, which is an antibody that sticks to CCR5, effectively making a person ‘delta CCR5‘, even if they arent genetically. Commercial antibodies as a therapy. Get viral loads down. Still yay!

But these new antibodies arent a cure for AIDS, nor are they currently helpful for vaccines.

Just more cool HIV-1 research getting completely blown out of proportion by the media.


  1. #1 Joshua Zelinsky
    September 9, 2009

    I have to wonder whether the constant bad reporting on science issues and in particular massive exaggeration about certain specific science issues (WE CURED CANCER! WE CURED AIDS! etc.) are contributing to the general populations general ignorance about science and poor attitudes about science.

    This isn’t an issue that my own area needs to worry much about because number theory only gets mentioned in the popular press about once every six months or so.

  2. #2 Optimus Primate
    September 9, 2009

    What’s funny is that some of my colleagues are sitting around in the press room at CEDIA talking about this RIGHT NOW. I feel like such a party pooper: “Nuh uh! Abbie at ERV says…”


    Thanks for breaking it down. šŸ™‚

  3. #3 NewEnglandBob
    September 9, 2009

    People actually READ USAToday????

  4. #4 Ledgie
    September 9, 2009

    Appreciate the clear explanation of yet another amazing ‘breakthrough’.

    City of Hope i hear are publishing in a ‘major scientific paper’ later this year regarding their HIV lymphoma RNAi based gene therapy trial (they’ve got 4 patients in follow up from their stem cell transplants done over a year ago).
    should be interesting.

  5. #5 Stephen Moore
    September 10, 2009

    Say you and I get the Swine Flu vaccination this year. You and I will make totally different antibodies to the Swine Flu vaccine. I cant *force* your body to make a particular antibody.

    Now that’s something I didn’t know, at least when it’s put like that. I thought antibodies is antibodies, but antibodies aint antibodies. Of course, half a second of thought and it’s rather obvious (provided one has at least a basic, layman’s, understanding of such things). Duh.

  6. #6 osmium
    September 10, 2009

    Holy million authors on the paper. Holy collecting samples from 1800 people.
    /all greek to me

  7. #7 JustaTech
    September 10, 2009

    “”first we did A, then we did B”, and I dont see the logic that led them from A to B” sounds a lot like “We did A, then we did B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z, and then Z worked, so we called it B!”

    I call that “let the tech do a bunch of stuff” science.

  8. #8 J Todd DeShong
    September 11, 2009

    I did not see this on USA Today. I read this on Sciencedaily.com and it said the paper is to be published in SCIENCE. It sounds a bit more credible than the poo~poo you’re giving it.
    Also, the people who emailed you may have been suckered into thinking it was some immediate cure, but if so, it is your readers’/emailers fault as the paper does not purport to be a cure.
    If every paper were to receive your type of response, I would highly doubt anyone would be continuing to publish preliminary research. How about we hold off the extremism until the next step of research and see where that goes?
    I understand skeptical, but the tone of your post seems a bit over the top.

  9. #9 W. Kevin Vicklund
    September 11, 2009

    Did Todd not understand ERV, or did he just stop reading after the first couple of paragraphs?

  10. #10 J Todd DeShong
    September 11, 2009

    Kevin, do you have a hero complex? Why are you taking up for ERV? I am sure she can patronize me the way she patronized this research project (re~read the first full paragraph after the break) ERV says that the entire research project was an illogical fishing expedition and that she would not even consider performing this project. Then later concedes these bNAB (broadly netralizing antibodies that have many other applicatons/possiblities with many other diseases) are awesome. Next paragraph she switches to patronizing again like a bi~polar jonesing for thorazine.
    It just seemed a bit disjointed and left me wondering WTF?
    Any more questions, Kev?

  11. #11 ERV
    September 11, 2009

    There is absolutely no reason to believe that any person infected with HIV-1 has strongly reactive, broadly neutralizing antibodies (the ‘goal’ of this research). None. Even in people who have limited progression to AIDS.

    The way your antibodies work– think of it as evilution on steroids. B-cells that make The Best antibodies are selected for, and proliferate more. Tiny mutations are made in The Best to make them More Betterer. So, if you look at the antibodies in an HIV-1 patient, they are all REALLY good at neutralizing virus!… virus that was in the patient 6 months ago. But the virus has evolved away from that, because viruses that could escape neutralizing antibodies were selected for too. Its the Red Queen Hypothesis on a teeny-tiny scale.

    However, there is no selective advantage for antibodies that neutralize numerous subtypes of HIV-1, especially when there is only one subtype present in the patient. If you happen to find B-cells that make antibodies that are broadly neutralizing, its possible that they have no more impact on disease than antibodies that are just really good at neutralizing the virus in the patient.

    Thus, this project is a fishing expedition. They had no reason to believe what they were seeking existed. So they put in a LOT of work, and might have gotten nothing out the end. Out of 30,000 B-cells, they found 2 that are useful, and while thats two more than the nothing I expected, no way I would have wanted to work on this.

    Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that IDing the targets of these antibodies will have any impact on vaccine design. We have had broadly neutralizing antibodies (or, antibodies that work well against certain subtypes), and we still have no vaccine. They are looking at this problem back-asswards from the B-cells perspective, which you cannot control in a vaccine, instead of from the viruses perspective, which you can control in a vaccine.

    So, Ill reiterate, this paper contains a LOT of hard work, and they have a couple of cool reagents (which they may or may not provide to other researchers). Yay for them. But Im not going to be looking for a job in their lab to work on the other 1,799 patients.

  12. #12 somedude
    September 14, 2009

    J Todd DeShong is a famous for making little sense and lots of waves…


  13. #13 coweringomega
    April 25, 2011

    Thoughts from a HIV neutralization researcher:

    1) We all know the media blows things out of proportion. This is not new.

    2) Finding new broadly neutralizing Abs (bnAbs) is important, as mentioned, because they can guide us in finding new vaccine candidates. It makes sense to find Abs that work very well, figure out where they target, then attempt to use that epitope to elicit the same, or at least similar Abs in the vaccinees. Isolating B cells that generate bnAbs is big in the field right now because there are actually very few known epitopes that bnAbs target. Expanding this set of known epitopes helps provide more information for vaccine targets.

    3) In terms for it being a fishing expedition, it was totally a fishing expedition. This work was actually given to a variety of groups to find bnAbs, and this group actually found some. Interestingly, they found more than these 2 that are presented here, but these were the best 2. These 2 are also clonal variations of each other, so they are really the same Ab. The work was an inter-agency project, so honestly, it’s nothing that any individual could do. It’s one of those things where everyone in a meeting agrees that this should be done, so lots of groups pitch in to figure out how to get the work done.

    I just realized this post is 2yrs old, so my comments will probably be lost in the ether, but there you have it…

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