One of the new concepts I learned when I started working on HIV was the most recent common ancestor, or MRCA. When you look at the genetic make-up of a population, you will find a certain amount of variety but also a much greater amount of overlap, i.e. stretches of DNA that are identical throughout the population. Using phylogenetics, one can look at these patterns of shared vs. mutated stretches, and reconstruct the genetic ancestor of the population. For example, you've probably heard of Mitochondrial Eve: since we all inherit our mitochndrial DNA from our mothers, scientists have been able to look at the mitochondrial DNA across all populations and determine the one ancestor (our common mother, so to speak) from which they all originated. Pretty cool, right?
My line of work, for the past 6-7 years has been estimating most common recent ancestors, or MRCAs, of HIV-1 populations. A few years ago we found that in sexually transmitted infections only a handful of viruses are able to come across the genital mucosa and start the infection. Therefore, if you draw a blood sample early enough (a few weeks) after the start of the infection, from that sample we can infer the MRCA of the viral population in the patient. This is particularly relevant because in the case of a viral infection, the MRCA is likely to be the virus that initiated the infection. As the infection progresses, the viral population changes, but it is the ones that are able to break the mucosal barrier (i.e. the MRCAs) that a vaccine needs to target.
Once inside the host, viral evolution is (for the most part) driven by the host's immune system as it tries to counter-attack the infection. At the same time, as the virus changes its genetic make-up to escape the immune pressure, the immune system itself changes and tries to come up with new ways to neutralize the enemy. It's an arms race that in HIV infections typically sees the immune system always one step behind: the first antibodies found in an HIV-1 infected person react with the first, unmutated virus that initiated the infection (the MRCA). As the infection progresses and the virus evolves, new antibodies are made that are able to react to the following viral generations, but typically there's always a subpolulation of viruses that's one step ahead of the antibodies and can still escape. (I hope this part is clear, I've been struggling quite a bit to find the right wording for this paragraph, so if it's not clear feel free to ask questions in the comments.)
In order to design an efficient vaccine, we need to find a way to elicit broad neutralizing antibodies, where by "broad" we mean antibodies that react not only to the present or past viral generations in one host, but to a wide variety of viruses across different hosts and populations. Such antibodies are found in a minority of HIV-infected patients and, typically, by the time they arise, the infection is so spread that they cannot clear the virus.
Ideally, a vaccine should boost a "short-cut" in the evolutionary path that leads to the production of broadly neutralizing antibodies much faster than our bodies are currently capable of. Unfortunately, all vaccine trials attempted so far have not been able to elicit broad neutralizing antibodies. Why?
Antibodies are made by B-cells, white blood cells produced in the bone marrow. In order to produce antibodies, B cells need to be activated, which happens when they find an antigen specific to their receptor. Once activated, B cells not only start producing antibodies, but they also either become memory cells (so that if the antigen is encountered again, the immune system will know which antibodies to produce in order to clear it) or they undergo further differentiation. This process of undergoing more differentiations ensures that the "match" between receptor and antigen becomes tighter and tighter. It takes many cycles of differentiations to produce HIV-1 broadly neutralizing antibodies, and, currently, the process takes so long that most patients don't produce them ever, and the ones that do, don't get them in time to clear the infection.
One reason why we believe it takes many differentiations to make HIV broadly neutralizing antibodies is that they share many similarities to self-reacting antibodies, antibodies that are normally destroyed by the body because they carry a high risk to originate auto-immune disorders (when the immune system attacks its own self instead of antigens). So, instead of eliciting the actual antibodies, could a vaccine elicit its ancestor? Remember how I said that the viral population constantly evolves and, hand in hand, so do the antibodies? Since we can estimate the viral ancestors, can we do the same for the antibodies? Can we reconstruct the differentiation pathway that leads to broadly neutralizing antibodies?
In , Liao and colleagues have reconstructed the lineage of the infecting virus in one African HIV-infected patient (CH505), as well as the lineage of an antibody, found in the same patient, able to neutralize 55% of ~200 HIV-1 isolates. the researchers effectively reconstructed the coevolution of virus and antibody within the patient. The patient was followed from week 6 after the infection up until 236 weeks after the infection, and during this period no antiretroviral therapy was administered. This is important because it means that the viral evolution was driven solely by the immune pressure.
Liao et al. found that the first unmutated ancestor in the B-cell lineage appears at week 14 after the infection, and it keeps mutating in ways that are reflected in the evolution of the virus. Once they retraced all the intermediate steps that led to the production of the broadly neutralizing antibody, the researchers tested all of the intermediate antibodies for reactivity against the virus, from the infecting strain to its later generations. They found that breadth and strength of reactivity increased as the antibody lineage evolved. In light of what I tried to explain above, this is a fantastic step forward in understanding how the virus evolves under the immune pressure, as it can help design a vaccine that elicits antibodies that are one step ahead (instead of behind) in the virus-host arms race.
"Thus, a candidate vaccine concept could be to use the CH505 transmitted/founder Env or Env subunits (to avoid dominant Env non-neutralizing epitopes) to initially activate an appropriate naive B-cell response, followed by boosting with subsequently evolved CH505 Env variants either given in combination, to mimic the high diversity observed in vivo during affinity maturation, or in series, using vaccine immunogens specifically selected to trigger the appropriate maturation pathway by high-affinity binding to the unmutated common ancestor and antibody intermediates. [. . .] The finding that the transmitted/founder Env can be the stimulator of a potent BnAb and bind optimally to that broadly neutralizing antibody unmutated common ancestor is a crucial insight for vaccine design, and could allow the induction of broadly neutralizing antibodies by targeting unmutated common ancestors and intermediate ancestors of broadly neutralizing antibody clonal lineage trees."Of course, there's the usual caveats: will this kind of pathway be reproducible in other patients? How much of it is randomness and how much is it not only retraceable but reproducible is something we will only understand by getting more data from more patients. But it's a start, and a very promising one.
 Liao, H., Lynch, R., Zhou, T., Gao, F., Alam, S., Boyd, S., Fire, A., Roskin, K., Schramm, C., Zhang, Z., Zhu, J., Shapiro, L., Becker, J., Benjamin, B., Blakesley, R., Bouffard, G., Brooks, S., Coleman, H., Dekhtyar, M., Gregory, M., Guan, X., Gupta, J., Han, J., Hargrove, A., Ho, S., Johnson, T., Legaspi, R., Lovett, S., Maduro, Q., Masiello, C., Maskeri, B., McDowell, J., Montemayor, C., Mullikin, J., Park, M., Riebow, N., Schandler, K., Schmidt, B., Sison, C., Stantripop, M., Thomas, J., Thomas, P., Vemulapalli, M., Young, A., Mullikin, J., Gnanakaran, S., Hraber, P., Wiehe, K., Kelsoe, G., Yang, G., Xia, S., Montefiori, D., Parks, R., Lloyd, K., Scearce, R., Soderberg, K., Cohen, M., Kamanga, G., Louder, M., Tran, L., Chen, Y., Cai, F., Chen, S., Moquin, S., Du, X., Joyce, M., Srivatsan, S., Zhang, B., Zheng, A., Shaw, G., Hahn, B., Kepler, T., Korber, B., Kwong, P., Mascola, J., & Haynes, B. (2013). Co-evolution of a broadly neutralizing HIV-1 antibody and founder virus Nature, 496 (7446), 469-476 DOI: 10.1038/nature12053