The Wall Street Journal has an article detailing the efforts of researchers at the Ragon Institute, a joint enterprise of Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University:
Scientists using a powerful mathematical tool previously applied to the stock market have identified an Achilles heel in HIV that could be a prime target for AIDS vaccines or drugs.
The research adds weight to a provocative theory—that an HIV vaccine should avoid a broadside attack and instead home in on a few targets. Indeed, there is a rare group of patients who naturally control HIV without medication, and these “elite controllers” most often assail the virus at precisely this vulnerable point.
“This is a wonderful piece of science, and it helps us understand why the elite controllers keep HIV under control,” said Nobel laureate David Baltimore. Bette Korber, an expert on HIV mutation at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said the study added “an elegant analytical strategy” to HIV vaccine research, which she and others said was in a robust and exciting phase. Drs. Baltimore and Korber weren’t involved in the research.
One of the most vexing problems in HIV research is the virus’s extreme mutability. But the researchers found that there are some HIV sectors, or groups of amino acids, that rarely make multiple mutations. Scientists generally believe that the virus needs to keep such regions intact. Targeting these areas could trap HIV: If it mutated, it would disrupt its own internal machinery and sputter out. If it didn’t mutate, it would lie defenseless against a drug or vaccine attack.