How to Beat AIDS?

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A 3D x-ray image shows an antibody (the green ribbon) in contact with a critical target (yellow) for vaccine developers.

The image that was made public on Valentine's Day looks like an extraterrestrial bouquet, a blossom from another galaxy. But it is a revelation from a skirmish in deepest inner space, one with huge potential promise in the war against AIDS. The twisting green "stems" are a rare antibody called b12; the red "florets" are a surface protein of the HIV virus; and the yellow area where they meet is the virus' point of vulnerability, where the b12 antibody latches on to start neutralizing the deadly entity that causes AIDS. The 3-D X-ray crystallographic image, released as part of a paper that appears in the journal Nature, is more than a pretty picture. Says co-author Peter Kwong, of the National Institutes of Health: "In the field of HIV research, it has never been clear before that an HIV vaccine is possible. This shows that it is."

While b12 is a rare antibody, occuring in only a very few individuals, what it does to this particularly vulnerable protein in the HIV virus has now been documented in great detail in the new study. The b12 antibody thus provides a key to scientists: its behavior will give them a precise roadmap on which to develop potential vaccines that would replicate b12's actions. One other advantage of b12 and its target protein (which is called HIV gp120): while the HIV virus is known to mutate over and over again, the HIV gp120 protein is stable throughout the existing strains of the virus. Thus, a vaccine developed with b12 as a template could potentially be used against all known variants of HIV. Now, the race is on to create and then test those vaccines. The otherworldly bouquet may produce some very earthly benefits.