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SFU scientist discover possible HIV vaccine

A team of scientists including Ralph Pantophlet, a Port Moody resident and assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU, have discovered a bacteria that could be the basis of an HIV vaccine. - SUBMITTED PHOTO/SFU
A team of scientists including Ralph Pantophlet, a Port Moody resident and assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU, have discovered a bacteria that could be the basis of an HIV vaccine.
— image credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO/SFU

An SFU scientist is part of a team that has discovered a new HIV vaccine-related tool.

The finding could lead to a little-known and benign bacterium becoming a vital tool in the development of a vaccine against HIV.

Ralph Pantophlet, a Port Moody resident and assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, along with senior research assistant Kate Auyeung and scientists in Italy made the discovery about Rhizobium radiobacter. Their research will be published in the journal Chemistry & Biology on Friday.

The research team discovered Rhizobium, a harmless bacterium, has sugar molecules on its surface that resemble those on the surface of HIV. That gives scientists a foundation on which to build a preventative vaccine against HIV, which carries its own "cloaking device."

HIVs sugar molecules "hide" the virus, giving it a chance to create several variations on itself long before our immune system recognizes there's an invader.

By the time the immune system catches up, some weeks later, HIV is already way ahead of the steps our body takes to eliminate it.

Pantophlet and his colleagues believe the sugar molecules on Rhizobium radiobacter can be used to trigger our immune system to immediately recognize those on HIV, prompting more immediate awareness of the virus' invasion.

The discovery is an ironic one, Pantophlet said in a release.

"We've found that a harmless species of a bacteria family that can cause tumours in the roots of legume plants could become a vital tool in the fight against one of the deadliest infectious diseases," he said.

There's still a long way to go before Rhizobium radiobacter can become the basis of an HIV vaccine.

Scientists will now have to find a protein on which to attach the bacterium's sugar molecules; the protein is needed to properly trigger our immune system's development of antibodies to the sugar molecules.

Those antibodies would recognize and then target HIV's sugar molecules because they resemble those on the bacterium.

The process is the same as other successful sugar-based vaccines against diseases like meningitis and childhood pneumonia.

"Two known proteins, tetanus toxoid and CRM197, a non-toxic recombinant variant of diptheria toxin, are commonly used to develop these kinds of vaccines," Pantophlet said. "So a lot of the groundwork is there for us to be able to have a vaccine that could be tested in a lab first and then in clinical trials later on."

Pantophlet and his colleagues are seeking grant funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research to continue their research. If they're successful, they hope to attach Rhizobium radiobacter's sugar molecules to a protein and create vaccine candidates for testing in the next one to two years.

 

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