New research to look at the structure of HIV has revealed the possibility of developing a vaccine for the disease. During a detailed investigation into the structure of the disease, at atomic level, details of HIV’s ‘envelope’ protein have been found. Knowledge of this protein helps researchers understand how the disease enters human cells. It may be possible to create a protective immune response with the newly found knowledge. There is currently no vaccine for HIV, known to have infected approximately 30 million people to date.
The envelope protein has made it impossible to create effective vaccines until now due to the complexity of its structure and the difficult task of investigating it at an atomic level. During the research study scientist were able to create a replica of the ‘envelope’ three component structures that are stable enough for atomic resolution imaging, whilst maintaining the necessary structures found in the original envelope protein. With the use of advanced imaging processes, X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy; it was possible to study the structure to a greater level of detail than ever before. It was possible to see, during the Study for Science Express, how the ‘envelope’ takes shape and alters during infection and similarly how it compares to ‘envelope’ proteins on different viruses. A professor of TRSI, Ian Wilson, commented on prior studies into structure of this particular envelope protein, “most of the prior structural studies of this envelope focused on individual subunits; but we've needed the structure of the full complex to properly define the sites of vulnerability that could be targeted, for example with a vaccine." What is now needed is to gather this new knowledge and apply further testing to develop an effective vaccine for HIV in the future.