Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science explains in laymen terms why we may never have a vaccine for the HIV virus despite almost 30 years of research.
You see, the problem with AIDS is that it mutates so rapidly that every time a vaccine is devised, new strains have already emerged sending scientists back to the drawing boards.
Vaccines train the immune system to recognise part of a virus, creating a long-term armada of antibodies that seek and destroy the invader, should it ever show its face. For HIV, the most obvious target is gp120, the surface protein that it uses to attach itself to human cells. But gp120 also constantly changes shape, making it difficult to recognise. It also comes in clusters of three that are shielded by bulky sugar molecules, hiding it from the immune system.
On top of that, HIV targets immune cells, the very agents that are meant to kill it. And it can hide for years by shoving its DNA into that of its host, creating a long-term reservoir of potential infection.
So, creating an HIV vaccine is like trying to fire a gun at millions of shielded, moving targets. Oh, and they can eat your bullets.
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