In the fight against HIV, cows emerge as powerful secret weapon

July 21, 2017, 11:42 a.m.
Cows eating in a meadow
Photo: Simun Ascic/Shutterstock

Who would have suspected that the cows we see munching on grass could be the key to beating HIV?

A new study finds that cattle can produce antibodies that neutralize the virus, which may hold clues to a vaccine for humans.

Researchers from the International Aids Vaccine Initiative and the Scripps Research Institute injected four cows with a type of HIV protein. They found that the cows began producing antibodies to the virus in just a few weeks, which is amazingly fast given that it takes the average human three to five years to do the same.

Within 42 days, the cows were able to neutralize 20 percent of HIV strains, the study reported. In about a year, they could neutralize 96 percent of HIV strains.

"The response blew our minds," Dr. Devin Sok, one of the researchers, told BBC News. "This is really important because we hadn't been able to do it, period."

Why hadn't they been able to do it? Because the virus changes all the time, different strains exist in different parts of the world, and the virus can mutate once inside a person's body, reports Science News.

"The potent responses in this study are remarkable. Unlike human antibodies, cattle antibodies are more likely to bear unique features and gain an edge over HIV," said Dr. Dennis Burton, a fellow researcher.

As the BBC explains, the cow has a "ruminant" digestive system that ferments grass to digest a range of hostile bacteria. As a result, the animals have developed the antibodies needed to attack them.

The study, published in the journal Nature, could help scientists working on an HIV vaccine figure out how to induce those antibodies in humans more quickly.

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