A new study has shown that nerve cells can naturally protect themselves against HIV infection.
The natural resistance to HIV is triggered by a protein called FEZ-1, which is made uniquely by neurons, and appears to keep off the virus.
The research team from University College Dublin, Ireland insists that the findings have raised the possibility of new treatments to inhibit HIV with the help of gene therapy or drugs to activate production of the same protein in cells other than neurons - especially the white blood cells that are most vulnerable to infection.
Lead researcher Mojgan Naghavi along with her colleagues Juliane Haedicke and Craig Brown determined the protective effects of FEZ-1 protein by blocking its production in human neurons.
The researchers hope to establish if they can block HIV infection in white blood cells by genetically engineering them to produce FEZ-1.
They also hope to have deeper insights into how FEZ-1 blocks HIV.
"We know FEZ-1 blocks infection, but we need to find the basic mechanism," New Scientist quoted Naghavi as saying.
Scientists know that FEZ-1 bind to molecular "motors" that help to transport proteins within cells along internal tramlines known as microtubules.
According to Naghavi, FEZ-1 might get in the way, thus blocking transport of viral proteins into the nucleus where they would multiply.
However, the only other source of natural protection against infection is in people who can't make CCR5, a surface protein that HIV uses to gain entry to cells.
There certain drugs that block CCR5, and other teams are testing gene therapies to restock patients' blood with cells engineered to not produce CCR5.
The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.