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Did science find HIV’s Achilles heel?

A new report published this week in the Journal Blood may point the way to the Achilles heel of HIV.

Scientists have known for some time the importance of cholesterol in the virus’ action in the human body, but they have not tried exploiting that to what would happen. The virus uses cholesterol in the viral protein sheath.

The story is reported on Yahoo Science Daily.

In order to understand the discovery it is important to understand how the immune system functions both in the presence of HIV and in the presence of other viruses. When the immune system confronts a virus, it sends out interferon to mobilize the rest of the system to attack the virus. However, when that virus is HIV, the virus triggers the immune system to overrespond with interferon, which shuts down the immune response.

So, back to the cholesterol on the virus. Scientists noticed some time ago that immune cells depleted of cholesterol were immune to invasion by HIV. So this time around, scientists treated the virus with a chemical that stripped the cholesterol from the virus envelope. When scientists introduced the cholesterol-free virus to immune cells, the immune system was able to destroy the virus.

More specifically, they tested blood samples from people with previous exposure to HIV in order to see if their blood could mount an adaptive immune response. Blood samples were used from 10 HIV positive people and from 10 people repeatedly exposed to HIV who weren’t infected. The researchers didn’t expect the HIV-positive blood to respond to either version of HIV because of the severely damaged immune systems of HIV patients. However, when cholesterol-diminished HIV was introduced to the non-infected HIV blood in a tube, the cells of the adaptive immune response reacted against the virus. By altering the virus, explains Graham, the researchers were able to reawaken the immune system’s response against HIV and negate HIV’s immunosuppressive properties.

“In addition to vaccine applications, this study opens the door to developing drugs that attack the HIV viral coat as an adjunct therapy to promote immune system detection of the virus,” says [David] Graham [assistant professor of molecular and comparative pathobiology and medicine at John Hopkins].

Don’t expect the discovery to lead to immediate human trials of vaccine or new routes of assault on the virus for those already infected. It can take a decade for a promising discovery to be translated into medical interventions.

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