Popular Science

WILL DISEASES ALWAYS OUTSMART US?

When you’ve been publishing for a century and a half, some offbase ideas are going to creep into your pages. We’re diving into the archives to give you a fresher take on “popular science.”

- By PURBITA SAHA

IN 2008, KORONIS PHARMA-ceuticals wrapped up the second phase of trials for a new HIV treatment described as a “mutation booster.” PopSci soon wrote about the intriguing procedure, which would supposedly introduce mistakes into the virus’s DNA and cause it to self-destruct: “In the movies, this technique, known as lethal mutagenesi­s, would create a supergerm, but in real life it’s spawning a powerful new class of antiviral drugs.”

The therapy failed to trigger viral suicide, and experiment­s ceased. HIV deaths have since fallen sharply thanks to prophylact­ic medication, safe sex, and drugs that keep the pathogen from replicatin­g, but the virus continues to elude one-shot methods. “It plays a cat-and-mouse game with the immune system,” says Bali Pulendran, a professor of immunology at Stanford. HIV mutates at breakneck speed, throwing off any specialize­d response human cells create to fight it.

Regardless, Pulendran thinks our bodies may hold the key. In 2020 he and his colleagues used careful doses of HIV to trigger a flood of antibodies in a monkey’s reproducti­ve tract. Most subjects were protected for six months. And back in 2019, another group effectivel­y cured a patient by giving him stem cells endowed with a rare, beneficial gene mutation.

All these tiny breaks in the case could add up in time. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in a decade we have a vaccine with 50 percent protection,” Pulendran says. (That’s on par with the flu shot.) Paired with existing stopgaps, that could be what it takes to outmaneuve­r the powerful germ—no sci-fi cure-alls required.

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