HIV is a horrible disease. It continous to kill millions of people every single year. While there are lots of breakthrough medications that enable many people to live long productive lives with the virus, the best solution to this scourge is, of course, to eliminate it through vaccines. And this is precisely what a new Y Combinator Startup, The Immunity Project, is trying to do. Basically, the company is developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine using a completely new approach.
A little bit of a background as to how the HIV virus works so you can see what the immunity project is trying to do. When the body cells are infected by the HIV virus, the body cells actually send out pieces of the HIV protein to the surface of the cell. These pieces act as markers for the body’s immune system to identify the cells that have been compromised and to attack and destroy the cells. In normal people, however, there is such a barrage of such signals from the cells that the immune system really gets confused. It doesn’t know how to tell heads or tails from all these messages that they’re getting. As a result, they are unable to pick up HIV infected cells from the signals your cell normally send out. As a result, a result, the infection progresses and people get sick from HIV and eventually turn into AIDS. For a small group of people, we’re talking one in 300 people, their bodies are able to send out signals in such a way that their immune system is able to zero in on the HIV infected cells and neutralize the HIV virus. This doesn’t mean that your body automatically destroys all the HIV in your system. They still carry a very very low level of the virus, but it is so low that it is essentially dormant. It never turns into AIDS. In other words, these people are effectively immune from the virus because of their immune system’s unique capability to target the messages that their cells send out.
The immunity project is looking to boost the body’s ability to respond aggressively to these signals. So, using computational models and big data sorting systems and algorithms, immunity is trying to look at the HIV prevention project as a data project. Basically, they’re gonna look at all these information and look at how these signals are being processed, and what kind of signals are being sent, and then they will reverse engineer it using chemical compounds so that using chemical methods or any other methods that can create the same signals or drug-delivery systems can fight HIV infection. One of the key members of the immunity team looks at the what this data is going to be filtered as similar to how web mail or email systems filter spam. It’s all about filtering noise from real content. It’s gonna be very interesting how this big data approach will work. It’s exciting because they plan to make the vaccine available for free. But it’s also going to be a big vindication of big data methodologies if this actually pans out. Keep your eyes focused on this project.