Can Camels help combat HIV?

18 June 2018

Lab Chat

Since HIV was first discovered in 1983, the deadly virus has claimed the lives of more than 35 million people, primarily through the contraction of Aids. Thanks to the progress of modern medicine, sufferers today can live long and happy lives with the disease, though locking down an effective vaccine against HIV has, so far, proven elusive.

Now, scientists in Germany are turning to an unlikely source to further their research: camels. Working in tandem with the Central Veterinary Research Lab (CVRL) in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the George Speyer Haus research institute in Frankfurt is investigating the possibility of using tiny antibodies in camel blood to neutralise the virus.

Prevention always better than the cure

Although the medical community have developed antiretroviral drugs which can effectively control HIV and allow a person to live with the virus relatively symptom-free, such treatments are not available to everyone. The vast majority of HIV sufferers are to be found in low- and middle-income countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, so accessing these medications can be impossible.

Even in more affluent parts of the world, getting hold of effective treatments can still be out of many people’s price range. Three years ago, a major pharmaceutical company caused a scandal in New York when they hiked the price of a HIV drug 5,000% overnight. As a result, researchers are always on the lookout for more affordable treatments which vaccinate against the virus, rather than managing or curing it.

Size matters

The scientists at the German institute have turned their attention towards UAE camels because of the small size of the antibodies in their blood. Traditionally, antibodies are comprised of two heavy chains and two light chains of amino acids, but in camels, they only consist of the heavy chains. Known as nanobodies, these antibodies are believed to be helping to combat a number of different illnesses and afflictions, including possibly HIV.

In a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, the authors document how they isolated over two dozen kinds of nanobodies in the camel’s blood, and that by combining the two most potent strains, they were able to gain favourable results in a trial. In fact, the combination was effective in neutralising 19 out of 21 types of the most dangerous type of HIV, which is responsible for well over half of all cases.

A long way to go

Although the findings are certainly a step in the right direction, the scientists behind the study are reluctant to become too over-excited or confident about their potential. “When I started with HIV research in 1987, scientists said there would be an HIV vaccine in five to 10 years, meaning that since 20 years ago we should have had an HIV vaccine. Do we?” said Dr Ursula Dietrich, lead author on the paper.

However, Dr Dietrich is optimistic about the possibility of genetically engineering probiotic bacteria to supply the antibodies directly to humans, offering them passive immunity. This type of immunisation differs from active immunity, whereby the body itself produces the antibodies (as happens with the camels), but could prove equally effective in the fight against this deadly virus.

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