For 15 years scientists have worked to get a clear enough picture of how the protein surrounding the virus that leads to AIDS interacts with antibodies, to guide the development of a vaccine that would instigate an effective immune response. For years, the delicate and complicated structure of that protein has made that difficult, and that, in turn, has been among the obstacles confronting efforts to develop potentially effective vaccine candidates.
Now, that is one obstacle down. Two recently published papers tell how National Institutes of Health scientists got the highest resolution attainable of the precise shape of the “envelope” as scientists call it (actually, they refer to it as “Env,” or the “envelope of glycoprotein trimer”) when it binds to antibodies. They did it by first engineering a less delicate form of the protein, and then using sophisticated technology to get a detailed image of its structure, and how it works with the antibodies that confront HIV. It is a “significant advance” in the quest to induce broadly neutralizing antibodies by a vaccine to prevent acquisition of HIV, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said.
That is better than “an incremental step forward,” (as good, more usually as it gets, according to Fauci). But, Fauci adds, “The next step is the really big challenge.” That will entail turning that information into the material for a vaccine, and determining if the body will make an appropriate response to it. And that, too will take years, “maybe a really long time,” Fauci says.
Making a vaccine takes at least seven to 10 years, “if you happen to have the right candidate,” Fauci. “We’re in the realm of discovery.”
So with budget cuts continuing to impact biomedical research, how does that effect efforts like that take years of inquiry to reach a significant advance, and an unknowable amount of time to reach a breakthrough?
That’s a different question.
“That goes beyond getting the native trimer shape of the envelope,” Fauci says drily. “That is that cuts in research, anywhere from the flat funding we’ve had for the last 10 years to the real shot we got with the sequestration, that has a profound effect on our ability to do this kind of research. It slows it down, it discourages researchers, it is a disincentive for the next generation of young researchers to enter the field of biomedical research. Everything about cutting funding for biomedical research is bad.”