The researchers, led by a team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., say the atomic-level picture of a key portion of an HIV surface protein images it as it looks when bound to an infection-fighting antibody.
Unlike much of the constantly mutating virus, that protein component is stable and -- more importantly, say the researchers -- appears vulnerable to attack from a specific antibody known as b12 that can broadly neutralize HIV.
The research team was led by Peter Kwong of the institute's Vaccine Research Center in collaboration with investigators from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.
"This finding could help in the development of an HIV vaccine capable of eliciting a robust antibody response," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the institute's director.
The research is outlined in the journal Nature.