Cows could be surprising ally in fight against HIV

Cows could be surprising ally in fight against HIV
Cows are emerging as an unlikely weapon in the fight against HIV as new research reveals they can produce powerful antibodies against the notorious, vaccine-resistant virus.

It’s the first recorded occasion that any animal, including humans, have rapidly produced antibodies to neutralize the virus. Researchers now hope that cows may one day hold the key to the future creation of a HIV vaccine.

HIV is notoriously hard to vaccinate against, as it mutates any time an infected person’s immune system figures out a way to combat it.

However, this new research shows that cows have an uncanny ability to produce powerful “broadly neutralising antibodies” at amazing speed.

Cows do not become infected with the virus, but their immune systems’ quick response against it has researchers excited.

“HIV is a human virus,”said study author Devin Sok, “but researchers can certainly learn from immune responses across the animal kingdom.”

For this trial, scientists injected four calves with a HIV immunogens, the proteins which they contain are designed to produce an immune system response to the virus.

All four calves produced these broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) within 35-50 days of injection. This is something that takes years in humans, by which time it’s too late.

"A minority of people living with HIV produce bNAbs, but only after a significant period of infection, at which point [the] virus in their body has already evolved to resist these defenses," said Dennis R. Burton, a lead author of the study, which was published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The calves antibodies neutralized 20 percent of HIV strains within 42 days of injection – and within 381 days could take out 96 percent of HIV strains tested in the lab.

“From the early days of the epidemic, we have recognized that HIV is very good at evading immunity, so exceptional immune systems that naturally produce broadly neutralizing antibodies to HIV are of great interest – whether they belong to humans or cattle,”said Anthony S. Fauci, who was involved with the study.

Though it’s unknown why exactly cows have such a drastic response to the virus, researchers speculate that it has something to do with their complex digestive systems.

Cattle have multi-chambered stomachs, which contain a massive amount of bacteria, allowing them to digest the tough grass upon which they feed.

This bacteria can be dangerous to the animal if it escapes the stomach, however.

While bovine bNABs are unlikely to be suitable for human trials, it’s hoped that figuring out how they produce such a quick response against HIV will help those living with the disease.