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HIV Vaccine Origins: New Insight Into League of Extraordinary Immune Cells

[Portrait of an HIV virus by Dominic Alves via Creative Commons & Flickr]

Y’know that feeling when you stumble across a study that makes you think, “Holy s***! Scientists actually did this!!!!”? And then like two weeks later, another team of scientists manages to kind of upstage the first team’s finding?

It’s been that sort of month for HIV vaccine research. A few weeks back, I wrote  about a team of researchers who managed to decrypt the origin story of an extremely effective strain of HIV-fighting antibodies for The Atlantic

I highly recommend reading The Atlantic piece for a full explanation (and also reading The Atlantic’s science and health coverage more generally, because the whole crew over there is pretty awesome)  but here’s the context you need to know:

“Immune cells called B cells build antibodies, tiny protein warheads that seek out and destroy viruses. But because HIV mutates so rapidly, these antibodies are generally ineffective—by the time B cells learn to build antibodies against one version of HIV, a new viral mutant has already taken over.” -me in The Atlantic

B-cells change their antibody designs by mutating at the DNA level. You literally have a team of microscopic mutants protecting your bloodstreams. 

The vast majority of antibodies that those mutant b-cells build suck. But in a few HIV-infected people, the b-cells manage to start building “broadly-neutralizing” antibodies that can disable all sorts of HIV mutants. Researchers love those broadly-neutralizing antibodies (which they’ve nicknamed “Bnabs”) because if researchers could find a way to get HIV-binding bnabs into uninfected people’s blood streams, those people would probably be immune to HIV. 

The Cell paper I wrote up for The Atlantic was a big deal because it marked the first time researchers were able to observe all of the changes that went into transforming an ineffective antibody into an HIV-killing bnab. Then, two weeks later, Science drops this bomb:

Another team of researchers found a way to measure whether individual b-cells have the potential to make a versatile HIV-killing antibody.

Turns out: about 1 in every 700,000 b-cells has the talent.

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