Researchers Find New Weapon in AIDS Fight
text, a Sept. 19 Reuters article said.
The structure of HIV includes cholesterol, which researchers think might prompt the body’s immune system to respond with more vigor to the initial infection. That, in turn, might overtax the immune system so that a subsequent response, the adaptive immune response, is compromised.
By stripping the cholesterol out of the virus’ membrane, researchers found they could prevent an excessive initial response against the virus by the immune system. This may mean that the adaptive response will be more effective. The adaptive response is carried out by T-cells -- the same cells that the virus hijacks, disables, and uses to replicate itself.
The head of the research project, Imperial College London’s Adriano Boasso, described the cholesterol-stripped virus as "an army that has lost its weapons but still has flags, so another army" -- the body’s T cells -- "can recognize it and attack it."
If a preventative treatment can be developed to follow up on the discovery, it might be possible some day to vaccinate people against the virus so that any initial infection does not overtax the immune system and the body’s natural defenses can wipe out invading HIV virus.
"HIV is very sneaky," Boasso pointed out. "It evades the host’s defenses by triggering overblown responses that damage the immune system. It’s like revving your car in first gear for too long -- eventually the engine blows out."
This characteristic of HIV has made it all the harder for researchers to create an effective vaccine, the article said.
"Most vaccines prime the adaptive response to recognize the invader, but it’s hard for this to work if the virus triggers other mechanisms that weaken the adaptive response," explained Boasso.
In another HIV-related development, researchers drew on the collective talents of the online gaming community for help in figuring out the highly complicated structure of an enzyme crucial for retroviruses such as HIV to carry out their attacks on living cells.
The enzyme looks like a tangled string in images captured my microscopes, reported AFP in a Sept. 18 article, but the images offer only two dimensions. In real life, the enzyme is a three-dimensional structure. Working out what that structure is in all three dimensions was a difficult challenge, but with help from gamers, the scientific community was able to obtain a three-dimensional model to help find new ways of disabling the enzyme and hindering the harmful action of such viruses.
Gamers used a resource called Foldit, a "fun-for-purpose" game that challenges groups of players to puzzle out such structures. The game is competitive, giving different groups that much more investment in figuring out complex problems, and making it that much more fun. The approach worked so well that the gamers solved the problem of the enzyme’s structure in three weeks’ time.
The gamers did not need any specialized scientific knowledge in order to do their part, the AFP reported. Instead, they relied on their own skills and imaginations to complete the task at hand.
"The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems," said Firas Khatib of the University of Washington, which created Foldit.
And human beings have something the even the most sophisticated computer lack: A direct experience with, and understanding of, the three-dimensional world.
"People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at," Foldit co-creator Seth Cooper noted. "Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before."
There have been promising leads in AIDS vaccines, but to date nothing has worked well for broad use among the general public. As yet the best that medical science can offer in terms of preventative treatments are the same sort of pharmaceuticals that HIV positive people use to minimize and maintain their viral loads.
Safer sex, including condom use, is still the most effective means of protection since it is cost efficient and involves no long-term side effects -- often a concern with pharmaceuticals.