HIV research at Duke University has discovered how to track how the virus and antibodies change in the body, paving the way to what could become a vaccine for the disease.

Vaccines typically work by prompting an antibody response from the body. But HIV changes rapidly, making it hard to develop HIV antibodies for a vaccine. A research team led by Dr. Barton Haynes, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, and Dr. John Mascola, acting director of the NIH Vaccine Research Center, used new technologies to detect the virus early and track both the immune response and the virus’ evolution. Seeing those changes could help researchers develop a vaccine. The work was published this week in the journal Nature.

“For the first time, we have mapped not only the evolutionary pathway of the antibody, but also the evolutionary pathway of the virus, defining the sequence of events involved that induce the broadly neutralizing antibodies,” Haynes said in a statement.

Duke said that the key to these research was finding a person in Africa whose HIV infection was detected so early that the virus had not yet mutated to avoid an immune response. The person also exhibited a trait that occurs in only about 20 percent of people infected with HIV – an immune system that produces broadly neutralizing antibodies. These antibodies attack vulnerable sites of the virus that are conserved despite mutations. By finding the early viral infection, the researchers were able to find the outer envelope, the viral surface glycoprotein, which triggers the virus’ broad neutralizing antibody development.

“The next step is to use that information to make sequential viral envelopes and test them as experimental vaccines,” Haynes said. “This is a process of discovery and we’ve come a long way with regard to understanding what the problem has been.”