‘Bionic assassins’ rip through HIV’s disguises

November 10th, 2008 - 4:57 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Nov 10 (IANS) The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that leads to AIDS is a master of camouflage, which lies undetected in infected cells and does its work of devastation. But its days may now be numbered, thanks to ‘bionic assassins’ that rip through its many disguises.Cardiff and Pennsylvania University researchers have engineered the assassins, in a development that may have important implications for developing new treatment for HIV and slowing - or even preventing - the onset of AIDS.

Over 33 million people worldwide are estimated to be living with HIV. Although anti-retroviral drugs have been successful in delaying AIDS for several years, the drugs are expensive, have serious side effects and must be taken for life.

No vaccine or cure yet exists and drug resistance is increasingly becoming a problem.

When viruses enter our bodies, they hijack the machinery of host cells in order to replicate and spread infection.

As with other viruses, HIV enters the body and replicates rapidly. However, it also has the ability to mutate quickly, swiftly disguising its fingerprints to allow it to hide from killer T-cells.

“When the body mounts a new killer T-cell response to HIV, the virus can alter the molecular fingerprint that these cells are searching for in just a few days,” explained Andy Sewell from Cardiff University, co-author of the study.

“It’s impossible to track and destroy something that can disguise itself so readily. As soon as we saw over a decade ago how quickly the virus can evade the immune system we knew there would never be a conventional vaccine for HIV.”

Now, Sewell and colleagues from University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have engineered and tested a killer T-cell receptor that is able to recognise all of the different disguises that HIV is known to have used to evade detection, said a Cardiff University press release. The findings have been published online in Nature Medicine.

The researchers attached this receptor to the killer T-cells to create genetically engineered “bionic assassins” able to destroy HIV-infected cells in culture.

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