Researcher finds key to how AIDS infects cells

A scientist who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases believes he may have found a key to how HIV manages to break through and infect a single cell.

It may all come down to a protein that acts as a receptor on CD4+ T-cells, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIAID and a highly respected AIDS researcher, in an interview with the Star.

This protein – known as alpha 4 beta 7 – allows HIV to bind to the cells that are found beneath the vaginal and rectal mucosa. Then the virus begins replicating, explained Fauci.

Fauci, who discussed the discovery at a plenary session of the AIDS Conference in Vienna this month, believes that the interaction between the transmitting or infecting HIV and the receptor should be considered as a target for a vaccine against sexual transmission of HIV.

His was just one of several breakthroughs that have occurred in recent months, including work by fellow NIAID researcher Dr. Gary Nabel and Dennis Burton, director of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative’s Neutralizing Antibody Consortium and a scientist at The Scripps Research Institute.

Nabel, the institute’s director of vaccine research, has found three antibodies that protect against a wide range of AIDS viruses. In a Reuters story, Nabel said that two of the antibodies attach to and neutralize 90 per cent of the various mutations of the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.

Meanwhile, Burton has found a component of an HIV surface protein that is stable and appears vulnerable to a specific antibody, known as b12, which neutralizes HIV.

The work of these three scientists may have long-term and profound implications for the development of a vaccine, something that has eluded researchers for many years.

“We’ve had so many disappointments with the HIV vaccine,” Fauci said. Most scientists, he added, are treading cautiously.

“I hope it will help open new vistas for vaccines,” he said of his discovery.

Researchers up until now have focused on developing a vaccine that would fight the various strains of HIV. Nothing has worked.

“HIV exists as a swarm of viruses that differ from each other even though they are all HIV,” Fauci said. “What is in your body changes and differentiates over time. It diverges from the original virus.”

Fauci suggests that his discovery might allow scientists to begin to build a vaccine against the transmitting virus and the site where the initial infection occurs.

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