A Phase I clinical trial has been proposed that uses neutralising monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) as passive immunoprophylaxis to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV-1 in South Africa. To assess the suitability of such an approach, we determined the sensitivity of paediatric HIV-1 subtype C viruses to the broadly neutralising MAbs IgG1b12, 2G12, 2F5, and 4E10.
Methods and Findings
The gp160 envelope genes from seven children with HIV-1 subtype C infection were cloned and used to construct Env-pseudotyped viruses that were tested in a single-cycle neutralisation assay. The epitopes defining three of these MAbs were determined from sequence analysis of the envelope genes. None of the seven HIV-1 subtype C pseudovirions was sensitive to 2G12 or 2F5, which correlated with the absence of crucial N-linked glycans that define the 2G12 epitope and substitutions of residues integral to the 2F5 epitope. Four viruses were sensitive to IgG1b12, and all seven viruses were sensitive to 4E10.
Only 4E10 showed significant activity against HIV-1 subtype C isolates, while 2G12 and 2F5 MAbs were ineffective and IgG1b12 was partly effective. It is therefore recommended that 2G12 and 2F5 MAbs not be used for passive immunization experiments in southern Africa and other regions where HIV-1 subtype C viruses predominate.
AIDS is caused by HIV. By killing the cells of the body's immune system, HIV infection makes people vulnerable to many potentially fatal bacterial and viral diseases. HIV is most commonly spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner but it can also pass from mother to child during late pregnancy or birth, or through breast milk. At least one in four infected women will transmit HIV to their babies if left untreated. But if infected women are treated with drugs that fight HIV—so-called antiretrovirals—during late pregnancy and if breastfeeding does not occur, only one to two babies in 100 will become infected with HIV. In addition, elective Caesarian section has been found to be protective against HIV infection. Implementation of this approach has greatly reduced mother-to-child transmission in developed countries, but most HIV-infected women live in developing countries where access to antiretrovirals is limited. In these cases, treatment of pregnant women (during pregnancy and delivery) and their newborn babies with a single dose of one antiretroviral drug, which can halve HIV transmission, is used, even though WHO/UNAIDS recommends simple antenatal, intrapartum, and postnatal antiretroviral regimens to achieve levels of less than 5% transmission in resource poor settings. These strategies will not have an impact on breastmilk transmission, which accounts for half the transmissions in these settings.
Why Was This Study Done?
One way to reduce breastmilk transmission of HIV might be by “passive immunization.” In this, newborn babies would be injected with HIV-specific antibodies—proteins that stick to molecules on the surface of HIV. Because the virus uses these molecules to invade the baby's immune cells, injected antibodies might stop HIV from the mother becoming established in her offspring. Four antibodies have been made in the laboratory—so-called human monoclonal antibodies—that bind to the surface of HIV subtype B, which is found mainly in Europe and North America, and stop HIV from killing human cells. However, most HIV isolated in Africa is subtype C, so in this study researchers have tested whether these antibodies prevent HIV subtype C killing cells grown in the laboratory. It is important, they argue, that antibodies should be shown to work outside the body before testing passive immunization in babies.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers isolated several subtype C viruses from babies born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and made artificial viruses (known as “pseudotyped” viruses) from them. These artificial viruses could then be used in tests to see whether the human monoclonal antibodies could prevent the viruses infecting human cells in a laboratory test, that is, whether the viruses were “sensitive” to the antibodies. All the viruses were insensitive to two of the antibodies (2G12 and 2F5), and the researchers show that this was because the viruses lacked the specific parts of the HIV surface molecules recognized by these antibodies. Four of the viruses were sensitive to an antibody called IgG1b12, and all were sensitive to antibody 4E10, albeit at high concentrations that might be difficult to achieve in people. Finally, the researchers report that the sensitivity of the viruses was not enhanced by using all four antibodies at the same time.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Given these results, the researchers warn against using 2G12 and 2F5 antibodies for passive immunization to prevent mother-to-child transmission, in particular postnatal transmission, in areas where most people are infected with HIV subtype C viruses. Furthermore, because animal studies have indicated that only combinations of at least three monoclonal antibodies with activity against HIV in laboratory tests provide complete protection against HIV infection, the researchers question whether any clinical trials on passive immunization should be started with currently available antibodies. Their doubts about such trials are heightened by observations that 4E10 and 2F5 react against antigens present on human cells, which might make them unsafe for use in people, although so far no adverse effects have been seen in adults treated with these antibodies. However, these experiments used an artificial laboratory-based assay and it's possible that these antibodies might kill HIV subtype C more effectively in people; other components of the immune system might help them deal with the virus. If clinical studies of these antibodies do go ahead, it is essential that the babies in these trials must be carefully monitored to ensure that the antibodies are safe, and they and their mothers should also be given access to optimal antiretroviral prophylaxis according to WHO/UNAIDS guidelines. In a related
PLoS Medicine Perspective paper (http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030259), Miroslaw Gorny1 and Susan Zolla-Pazner discuss the study further and stress the critical need to determine if passive immunization with such antibodies could decrease mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and if so what the best antibodies would be.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases fact sheets on HIV infection and AIDS
US Department of Health and Human Services information on HIV/AIDS, including
clinical guidelines and
fact sheets on preventing transmission from mother to child
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on HIV/AIDS, including pages on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission
MedlinePlus encyclopedia entry on HIV/AIDS
Preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV Web page
Assessment of viruses from seven children with HIV-1 subtype C infection showed generally poor sensitivity to four monoclonal antibodies proposed for a trial of passive immunoprophylaxis to prevent mother-to-child transmission.