Scientists have been trying for years to solve the mystery of why a few rare individuals get infected with HIV, yet somehow retain immune defenses so they never get sick. Today, researchers at a small Seattle biotech company, Theraclone Sciences, and collaborators at San Diego’s Scripps Research Institute say they have found a new vulnerability in the virus that could lead the way to new treatments or possibly a vaccine.
By studying rare blood samples from HIV-resistant people in the lab, scientists have found two weak spots on the virus, and were able to genetically engineer two new antibodies that broadly neutralize many variations of the virus circulating around the world, according to research being published this week in Science. Besides Theraclone and Scripps researcher Dennis Burton, this effort included collaborators from South San Francisco-based Monogram Biosciences (NASDAQ: MGRM) and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) in New York.
This effort is still in its early days, and nobody knows yet for sure if these new antibodies will even work in lab animals. But this is the first time in more than a decade that scientists have discovered antibodies with broad neutralizing capability that can stand up to multiple strains of the wily virus in the lab. Plus, they were found in blood samples from donors in developing countries, where most of the new infections occur.
While HIV is largely considered a chronic disease in wealthy countries like the U.S. where there are 32 FDA-approved antiviral drugs, the discovery of neutralizing antibodies is potentially groundbreaking. The antibodies could be critical ingredients used to develop the first HIV vaccine, which would be most useful in poor countries. More than 30 million people around the world are thought to be living with HIV, and the disease is still thought to kill 2 million people a year.
“These new antibodies, which are more potent than other antibodies described to date while maintaining great breadth, attach to a novel, and potentially more accessible site on HIV to facilitate vaccine design,” said Burton, a professor of immunology and microbial science and scientific director of the IAVI Neutralizing Antibody Center at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, in a statement. Burton is also a member of the newly-formed Ragon Institute, a collaboration of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard.
We first wrote about this HIV work in April based on an interview with Theraclone CEO David Fanning. I caught up with Fanning again by phone to talk about the business implications of getting such big recognition in one of the world’s top two scientific journals.
This publication—and all the global media attention it is bound to attract—is definitely going to attract the interest of prospective partners in Big Pharma and biotech, and funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health, that Theraclone needs to help pay the bills for its research program. When Fanning called me, it was 4 a.m. in Japan, where he has been meeting with potential partners. “I’m not here for vacation, you can put it that way,” he says.
“This really validates our technology in the eyes of people that we want to see start using it,” Fanning says. “Instead of us being a small private biotech that may or may not be doing something interesting, we’ve now made a mark very rapidly in one of the biggest challenges of all infectious disease.”
Still, the work is clearly just beginning. Theraclone, through ongoing financial support … Next Page »
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