Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why I hate science reporting: Hype

I dont know if this is necessarily the fault of science journalists, but the field of HIV research is prone to having every new finding blown into a media frenzy of "OMG WE'RE GONNA HAVE A VACCINE NEXT WEEK!!" I say this isnt entirely the fault of science journalists, because I also place a portion of the blame on the world of HIV research itself. So much work has been done, but its always baby, baby steps-- the pressure to deliver something 'revolutionary' is a monkey on the back of every HIV researcher... But 'revolutionary' hasnt happened in ages.

Sometimes in our desperation to give people some good news, irresponsible data gets paraded around like its groundbreaking (eg the CDC touting its *one* male circumcision study without addressing any of the problems it has in common with female circumcision... a practice the CDC explicitly forbids), or a baby-step gets blown out of proportion. The latest HIV Hype fad was "HIVs SILVER BULLET!!!"


Yes, its a good study. However, there is a fundamental problem with the broadly neutralizing antibodies that have been identified for HIV: theyre all weirdos.
How immunizations normally work is that your body has made all these different rearrangements in the hopes of being able to recognize any sort of crap that might get into you over the course of your lifetime. Normally the bits that recognize parts of YOU are selected out before they can do any harm, but when they do slide through, thats how you get some autoimmune diseases. Anyway, the way regular immunizations work, is that say, some dead viruses are injected into you, those bits that recognize bad bits get your immune system primed, and if youre ever exposed to those virus parts again, your body takes care of it without you getting sick. Hurray!
So why cant we do that with HIV? Because HIV is a bastard, thats why. Sure, most people know that HIV is a retrovirus, so it mutates a lot, and that makes it hard to have an effective vaccine. You might be immunized against 'HIV', but when (not if, when) HIV mutates around your bodys defenses, its in. Thats bastardly enough, but then, get this, it has a cloaking device. Seriously. The parts of HIV that make the BEST recognition sites for our immune system hide in essentially a forest of sugar. Your immune system comes around, says, "Hey, thats sugar. Youre cool" and ignores HIV.

We have found antibodies that neutralize HIV. Great, right? Figure out how they work, make a vaccine, yay! Not quite. The antibodies weve found are freaks. Things inverted, weird binding, Frankensteins. Unless all of us have essentially malfunctioning B-cells in our arsenal, we can try to get you and me to make these antibodies, but its not going to happen. So, we could take B-cells out of each of us, get them to express the appropriate sequence, inject them back into us, hope we dont get cancer. Or, we could use these antibodies as therapy. But neither one of these options are any help to Africa. No help to India. I mean, I dont know who this is supposed to help.

Its a great step forward, but we're not getting an HIV vaccine tomorrow, or the day after that...

I think this study is far more groundbreaking.

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