Researchers have discovered a molecule that renders HIV vulnerable to immune system attacks and could help eliminate HIV reservoirs, or be part of a vaccine. The JP-III-48 molecule mimics a type of protein and appears to trick HIV into opening itself up to attack from antibodies that could kill the virus.
Medical News Today has reported that researchers at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM) Research Centre in Canada found that molecule, which they dubbed a "can opener," forces the HIV-1 virus to open and exposes it to attack. HIV-1 is the most common strain of the virus.
The researchers also discovered that people infected with the HIV-1 virus usually have naturally occurring antibodies that could kill the HIV-infected cells once they are exposed.
"We just have to give them a little push,” reported the study’s author, Dr. Andrés Finzi in a written statement. “Adding a tiny molecule that acts as a can opener [forces] the viral envelope to expose regions recognized by the antibodies, which forms a bridge with some cells of the immune system, initiating the attack."
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, builds on previous findings this year; that cells infected with HIV-1 were more easily eliminated when two HIV-specific proteins (Nef and Vpu) were deactivated.
Because these two proteins protect the HIV virus from attack, eliminating or deactivating them could leave the virus vulnerable and exposed.
The JP-III-48 molecule imitates the CD4 protein, a protein that makes T lymphocytes, a type of white blood cells vulnerable to HIV infection. For the new study, the Canadian team added the CD4 protein-mimicking molecule to the surfaces of infected cells and found that it tricked the HIV virus into making itself vulnerable.
"The virus has to get rid of the CD4 proteins to protect itself,” explained Jonathan Richard, a postdoctoral researcher at CHUM who participated in the study.
Mistaking JP-III-48 for CD4, the HIV-1 virus opens, exposing vulnerable elements that become a target for antibodies.
“Adding the small molecule forces the viral envelope to open, like a flower,” Richard added. “The antibodies that are naturally present after the infection can then target the infected cells so they are killed by the immune system."
This ability of the molecule to trick HIV infected cells into opening up to attack could have far reaching ramifications including eliminating HIV reservoirs
"The solution is to develop a 'shock and kill' therapy,” Finzi explained. “We have to reactivate HIV reservoirs to force the virus out of its hiding place, then kill the infected cells with this molecule and the already present antibodies."
Globally, around 35 million people are infected with HIV-1 and could be helped by this discovery. In addition to eliminating reservoirs, the JP-III-48 molecule may also lead to the development of a vaccine, which would combine the molecule and HIV antibodies to target the virus with a one-two punch.
The JP-III-48 molecule was previously developed by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, but this is the first study using it as a potential HIV treatment.
The next step for the Canadian team is to assess JP-III-48 capabilities in tests involving monkeys infected with the HIV-like simian virus.