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TSRI Scientists Find Surprising Trait in Anti-HIV Antibodies

Advances in Search of an AIDS Vaccine

LA JOLLA, CA – November 17, 2015 – Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have new weapons in the fight against HIV.

Their new study, published today as the cover article of the November issue of Immunity, describes four prototype antibodies that target a specific weak spot on the virus. Guided by these antibodies, the researchers then mimicked the molecular structure of a protein on HIV when designing their own potential HIV vaccine candidate.

“This study is an example of how we can learn from natural infection and translate that information into vaccine development,” said TSRI Research Associate Raiees Andrabi. “This is an important advance in the field of antibody-based HIV vaccine development.”

Andrabi served as first author of the study, working in the lab of senior author TSRI Professor Dennis R. Burton, who is also scientific director of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) Neutralizing Antibody Center and of the National Institutes of Health’s Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology and Immunogen Discovery (CHAVI-ID) at TSRI.

Surprising New Antibodies

The findings build on the success of several recent TSRI studies showing that, with prompting, the immune system can develop antibodies to neutralize many strains of HIV.

In the new study, the researchers carried out a series of experiments involving virus modifications, protein and antibody engineering. They found that four antibodies targeted a single spot on HIV’s surface called the V2 apex. This was significant because the V2 apex could be recognized by these antibodies on about 90 percent of known HIV strains—and even related strains that infect other species. A vaccine targeting this region could protect against many forms of the virus.

“This region helps stabilize the virus, so it’s an important area to target if you want to neutralize HIV,” said Andrabi.

Investigating further, the researchers noticed that two of the four antibodies had an unusual feature that could prove important in vaccine design.

The immune system usually begins its fight against infection by activating immune B cells that express “germline” forms of antibodies, on their surface, to bind invading pathogens. Germline antibodies rarely bind viruses very effectively themselves; instead, they are precursors for more developed antibodies, which mutate and hone their response to the invader.

Yet in the new study, two of the antibodies did not need to mutate to bind with the V2 apex; instead, these antibodies used part of their basic germline structure, encoded by non-mutated genes. This means any patient with HIV should, in theory, have the ability to kick-start the right immune response.

Unfortunately, the immune system seems to naturally produce only a small number of these HIV-neutralizing germline antibodies. To generate an immune response that would favor these antibodies, it was critical for the scientists to find the right proteins in HIV that the antibodies could recognize and bind to.

In the new study, the researchers succeeded in mimicking a structure on HIV called the native HIV coat protein. This let them design proteins that do indeed bind well to the germline antibodies and hopefully start a useful immune response. The next step will be to test the vaccine candidates in animal models.

In addition to Andrabi and Burton, authors of the study “Identification of Common Features in Prototype Broadly Neutralizing Antibodies to HIV Envelope V2 Apex to Facilitate Vaccine Design,” were James E. Voss, Chi-Hui Liang, Bryan Briney, Laura E. McCoy of TSRI, IAVI and CHAVI-ID; Pascal Poignard of TSRI and IAVI; and Chung-Yi Wu and Chi-Huey Wong of the Genomics Research Center, Academia Sinica and TSRI.

This study was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery (CAVD), the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

About The Scripps Research Institute

The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) is one of the world's largest independent, not-for-profit organizations focusing on research in the biomedical sciences. TSRI is internationally recognized for its contributions to science and health, including its role in laying the foundation for new treatments for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, hemophilia, and other diseases. An institution that evolved from the Scripps Metabolic Clinic founded by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps in 1924, the institute now employs more than 2,500 people on its campuses in La Jolla, CA, and Jupiter, FL, where its renowned scientists—including two Nobel laureates and 20 members of the National Academy of Science, Engineering or Medicine—work toward their next discoveries. The institute's graduate program, which awards PhD degrees in biology and chemistry, ranks among the top ten of its kind in the nation. For more information, see

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Authors of the new paper included (left to right) James Voss, Raiees Andrabi, Dennis Burton, Bryan Briney and Chi-Hui Liang. (High-res image)