3D HIV structure reveals new insghts

By Wai Lang Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Hiv Gene Aids

Scientists have taken a major step forward in the diagnosis and
treatment of HIV as it was revealed that the virus' 3D structure
had been constructed. This achievement will prove instrumental in
the development of more effective therapeutic drug approaches.

The achievement is all the more remarkable when it is considered that previous efforts were hampered by the variable size and shape of HIV, factors that have also restricted the development of an effective treatment.

The team, consisting of English and German scientists, took a vast number of images, of the virus, which is 60 times smaller than red blood cells, and used a complex computer programme to combine them.

The researchers overcame the immense variability of the virus by taking multiple images at different angles.

Colleagues in Heidelberg and Munich then took the images of 70 individual HIV viruses and then looked at similarities.

Appearing in the journal, Structure,​ the study commented on the similarities discovered, which revealed the core of cone-shaped virus spanned the width of the viral membrane.

Spikes on the outside bound to human immune cells allowing the virus to invade them.

The significance of this is that whereas most viruses have internal structures, which define the size, in the HIV virus it is the membrane, which defines the size.

Like most viruses, HIV is not a cell but rather strands of genetic material encased in protein. The virus invades a cell and dominates it by swamping the cell's genetic code with its own.

However, most existing HIV drugs working inside the body's immune cells, after the virus has infected. This discovery is therefore sure to provide some much needed insight as to how primary infection can be halted.

Existing HIV drugs' mechanism of action also causes terrible side effects including anaemia, nerve pain, diarrhoea, fat wasting and organ damage - leading researchers to study other approaches.

"Identifying how the virus grows will allow us to address the formation of this important pathogen and how it accommodates its variability,"​ said the study.

"This could lead to the development of more effective therapeutic approaches."

But Professor Stephen Fuller of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics who continues to work on HIV, acknowledged that a new HIV vaccine or treatment resulting from his research was a long way off.

He commented, however, that the research could provide an insight into the way to prevent the virus from assembling.

Aids affects approximately 40 million people across the world and The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) recently estimated that more than two million people were living with HIV in Europe at the end of December 2004.

Related topics Preclinical Research

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