A team of researchers at University of Montreal has "un-canned" the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is a bit like a hermetically sealed tin can no one has yet been able to break open.
Researchers have identified a way to use a "can opener" to force the virus to open up and to expose its vulnerable parts, allowing the immune system cells to then kill the infected cells.
This breakthrough, which opens a new path in the fight against HIV and could ultimately lead to the design of a vaccine to prevent transmission of the virus, could also be part of the solution for one day eradicating the virus. Despite recent advances, 35 million people are infected with HIV-1 worldwide.
Study lead author Andres Finzi said that they found that people infected with the HIV-1 virus have naturally occurring antibodies that have the potential to kill the infected cells, adding they just have to give them a little push by adding a tiny molecule that acts as a can opener to force the viral envelope to expose regions recognized by the antibodies that forms a bridge with some cells of the immune system, initiating the attack.
In real life, however, wild-type HIV-1 virus, responsible for the vast majority of infections in the world, still contains these proteins, which act like bodyguards and they can outwit them by adding a tiny molecule to the cell surfaces of infected patients, called JP-III-48, which imitates a protein called CD4. CD4 proteins are located at the surface of T lymphocytes and allow immune system cells to be infected by HIV.
The discovery by Finzi's team could help develop a two-part vaccine to prevent HIV infection: through antibodies that are easy to generate and using this new family of molecules. Furthermore, this discovery opens the way for the development of strategies to eliminate the viral reservoirs of individuals already infected. The next step is to test the potential of this can-opener molecule in monkeys.
The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.