Ralph PantophletRalph Pantophlet

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SFU scientists discover possible HIV vaccine tool

March 01, 2012
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A team of researchers led by SFU health scientist Ralph Pantophlet has discovered a harmless bacterium that contains sugar molecules that closely resemble those found on the surface of the HIV virus.

Their discovery, profiled in the Feb. 24 Chemistry & Biology journal, could potentially lead to the first vaccine for the virus.

The sugar molecules on HIV prevent the immune system from recognizing the virus as a foreign body.

But Pantophlet, his senior research assistant Kate Auyeung and colleagues in Italy believe the sugar molecules on the Rhizobium radiobacter bacterium can be used to trick the immune system into immediately producing antibodies when it recognizes the sugar compound on HIV.

“The irony of our discovery is not lost on us,” says Pantophlet. “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.”

Before Rhizobium radiobacter can be used to create an anti-HIV vaccine, the scientists need to find a protein to which they can attach the bacterium’s sugar molecules.

The protein is needed to trigger the immune system to develop antibodies to the sugar molecules, which theoretically would then recognize and target HIV’s sugar molecules because they look like those on the bacterium.

Researchers have used similar methods to produce sugar-based vaccines for meningitis and childhood pneumonia.

Pantophlet’s team is now seeking grant funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research to continue its research.

They hope to attach Rhizobium radiobacter’s sugar molecules to a protein and create vaccine candidates for testing within one to two years.

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