November 29, 2013
How AIDS Evades
HIV-1. AIDS. These two fateful words, akin to “cancer,” that bring with them a terrible connotation. Though medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds since the disease’s discovery back in the 1980’s, it still brings portends of death in its wake. It is a disease that opens the door for more diseases. The unique way that AIDS interacts with the immune system has made it the subject of countless research projects, funded by scientists, governments, and the public alike. And it’s begun to pay off. Reports of a developing HIV vaccine have been circulating for the past few months, and even more recently, a group of scientists from the Institut Curie have added to that body of knowledge by revealing a proverbial chink in the virus’s armor: its biological cloaking system. By studying the way that HIV moves undetected throughout human cells, these researchers may have discovered the first steps towards creating a cure.
Xavier Lahaye and Takeshi Satoh demonstrated how HIV-1 uses its capsid (the protein shell of the virus) to hide itself from the biological watchdogs that alert our bodies to harm, an interesting divergence from HIV-2, which is immediately detected by the body. They had originally thought the capsid detached from the virus after it entered the host and began its dirty work. Once they discovered that the shell was not only still attached, but actively masking the virus from the cGAS sensor molecules, they were able to use the virus’s own strength against it. By altering one of the amino acids present in the capsid protein, the team was able to recreate the virus, sans its biological cloaking field. With no ability to hide, the cGAS sensors were able to identify it and trigger the appropriate response. Nicolas Manel, leader of the study, believes that this modification has practical applications as an HIV-1 vaccine.
It’s fascinating not only that we’ve come so far in twenty years, but also that one of the keys to defeating this disease may very well in fact lie with its greatest biological strength. It truly sounds like something straight out of a science-fiction novel: facing a unique, alien threat and only discovering how to defeat it after discovering its greatest strength. Come to think of it, the recent zombie movie World War Z has a scene in which one of the researchers suggests using that same approach against the zombie virus.
Weakness from strength. Strength from weakness. It’s a theme echoed throughout both literature and life: the smallest details can make the largest difference. A single capsid protein shell made HIV one of nature’s most insidious illnesses, and a single amino acid gave us what we need to start fighting back. These are truly exciting times for medicinal technology. Hopefully, I’ll live to see the day when HIV is finally kicked to the curb.
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