A team of scientists found that the immune systems of two South African women infected with HIV were able to produce antibodies capable of neutralizing and killing 88 percent of known strains of the virus, according to a study published Sunday in the journal Nature Medicine.
Significantly, scientists were able to establish a link between a change in the outer protein coating of the virus, and the formulation of the "broadly neutralizing antibodies" that fight it.
The research, undertaken by the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa, has been hailed as a ground-breaking discovery that could be an important step towards developing an AIDS vaccine.
A sugar called glycan on the surface covering of the virus at a specific position forms a site of vulnerability in the virus, and enables the body to mount a neutralizing antibody response, a statement from CAPRISA explained.
“Understanding this elaborate game of ‘cat and mouse’ between HIV and the immune response of the infected person has provided valuable insights into how broadly neutralizing antibodies arise,” scientist Penny Moore was quoted as saying.
South African newspaper Business Day noted that an HIV vaccine has proven elusive in part because there are many different varieties of the virus.
Aaron Motsoaledi, the South African health minister, praised the discovery and publicly thanked the two women who took part in the study.
"Our scientists have also in the past helped us understand the mother-to-child transmission of the virus. Their groundbreaking work brings us closer to developing an HIV vaccine," Motsoaledi said, according to the South African Press Association.