A new study at the National AIDS Research Institute (NARI) shows for the first time that cells responsible for the body’s first line of defence from disease, the innate immunity, has resulted in some new understanding of the body’s response to HIV virus.
Researchers at NARI, in collaboration with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi and Bangalore-based Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Research, were able to identify parts of the HIV antigen that could generate a high degree of immune response.
The findings of three separate studies could be a gamechanger in treatment of HIV-positive people. At NARI, a three-year study identified the immune cells that prevented the HIV virus from replicating. A joint collaboration with other institutes helped researchers identify parts of HIV antigen (epitopes) that could generate a high degree of immune response,explained Dr R Gangakhedkar, Director of NARI.
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Dr Madhuri Thakar, principal investigator of the NARI study, told The Indian Express that 20 HIV positive participants were enrolled for the study in Pune. However, none of the 20 had taken recourse to anti-retroviral treatment. Some had the disease for 12 years. In other studies, 30 people living with HIV were enrolled by the other institutes.
The study found that the viral load was within limits. There were no any specific symptoms either. This led scientists to explore further and as part of yet an Indo-Australian study, the researchers soon found that these patients had shown a few antibodies (known as antibody dependant cell mediated cytotoxicity: ADCC) that can help kill cells infected with HIV.
The findings of the three-year NARI study, that naturally present (innate) immune cells can help in controlling the HIV virus, is now being explored further, Gangakhedkar said. It is a well-known fact that the immune response in the very early phase of HIV infection might give a clue to identifying a protective and durable immune response.
ART has enhanced the survival rate of HIV-positive individuals immensely. An HIV infected individual’s life can be prolonged by about 45 years if the individual adheres to treatment and has access to different anti-retroviral drugs. Enhancing its coverage is a major challenge. According to National ART consultant Dr B B Rewari, around 8.6 lakh persons are on ART, another 10,000 on second-line ART and the third line of drugs has yet to be rolled out.
India is a decade into free ART. New HIV infections continue to be reported, though the incidence is lesser. A cure for HIV continues to elude scientists. Efforts to develop a vaccine must continue, Gangakhedkar said.
Vaccine research progresses
There is some good news on the AIDS front —Monday, May 18 is AIDS Vaccine Awareness Day— that research on neutralizing antibodies are making progress.
These are proteins developed against HIV antigens and can block HIV activity. A vaccine that provides 70% protection could reduce new infections by 40% in its first decade, and by almost half in 25 years and up to 42 million infections averted by 2070, depending on success of other HIV/AIDS interventions, said Dr Rajat Goyal, Country Director of International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.