Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infects more than 34 million people worldwide.  HIV is a virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a condition, which does not allow the immune system to fight off other lethal infections.  HIV. The immune system functions by recognizing proteins on the surface of viruses and bacteria.  HIV is unique in that the human immune system cannot identify the protein on its surface.  This is due to the protein’s ability to rapidly mutate.  This also makes it difficult to create a vaccine.  Vaccines function by introducing the immune system to the protein of a harmful bacteria or virus, which allows the immune system to identify the protein in the future.

Recently, however, a team of scientists at the Scripps Research Institute and Weill Cornell Medical College engineered a more sturdy form of the protein.  This is significant because high resolution imaging of the protein had been elusive due to its complex and delicate structure. The results were published online in 2013, in the journal Science.

The team of scientists was able to determine the structure of the protein using cryo-electron microscopy and X-ray crystallography.  This finding may be critical in finally creating an HIV vaccine. One of the researchers, Dr. Ian Wilson stated “Most of the prior structural studies of this envelope complex focused on individual subunits, but the structure of the intact trimeric complex was required to fully define the sites of vulnerability that could be targeted, for example with a vaccine”.