Advances in the war against HIV

We have come a long way since the 1980s in our war against HIV. Of course in the beginning this was a scary disease and being HIV positive was effectively a death sentence.

By the late 1990s we had developed a therapy that greatly reduced the mortality of HIV/AIDS. More recently a daily pill has been introduced (the name for it is Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP) which can greatly reduce the risk of contracting HIV, especially for people who are at high risk of exposure.

Frustratingly after all these years, and intensive research, a vaccine for HIV has been elusive. A major problem in trying to beat HIV is that it is very good at disguising itself in the body. Our bodies need sugars in order to perform their tasks. What HIV has done is trick our immune systems, by coating itself with a type of sugar. When the immune system sees the sugar it leaves the hidden HIV virus alone.

This creates an obvious problem for creating a vaccination, if the immune system itself doesn’t know how to make antibodies, how can you come up with a vaccine that will force the body to make antibodies? The source of the slow vaccine creation has been this very problem.

A better understanding of HIV appears to be the way forward and this is what scientists are currently working on. They may have hit on something big recently. It seems that scientists have been able to take a “fingerprint” of HIV and may be able to use the “fingerprint” in order to create a vaccine.

The scientists developed new techniques (with some heavy computer use) to speed up the process of identifying the so called sugar shield of HIV. In the process they were able to find places where there are holes in this shield. Holes in the shield may be the key to developing a vaccination because if they can exploit these holes somehow (perhaps using them to break off the sugar shield for instance) they may be able to help the body to recognize the HIV and create antibodies against it.

So as is common, the better we understand something the more likely we are able to fight it. Let’s not cut back on research such as this.

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