UVa Researchers Investigates How HIV Mutates

August 28, 2013

New research from the University of Virginia School of Medicine offers possible insight on how HIV viruses act in the body.

HIV is an elusive virus that is quick to mutate to escape the immune system. The discovery by researchers suggests that the virus does this by controlling a genetic process, changing how much of itself is produced at any given time.

The discovery sheds light on the HIV infection process and could open the door to new treatments.

“It was a big surprise to us that there seems to be this selection for a set level of this activity to be there. In some patients, it changed with time. In some patients it went up, and in other patients it went down,” said David Rekosh, PhD, of UVa’s Myles H. Thaler Center for AIDS and Human Retrovirus Research. “What we don’t know yet is why, or what meaning this has for the infection. But what’s important about our study is the fact that the gene is changing in this way. This tells us that regulating it is important to the virus.”

The findings show such promise that the National Institutes of Health’s Institute of General Medicine Sciences has awarded the UVa researchers a four-year, $1.2 million grant to explore the implications.

Rekosh and UVa’s Marie-Louise Hammarskjold, MD, PhD, have been working on the gene, Rev, for more than two decades. They were among the early pioneers who discovered the fundamental mechanism of what it does and how it does it.

“When we first discovered this fact that HIV uses Rev to get RNA from out of the nucleus to the cytoplasm, very little was known about how that occurs in the cell,” Hammarskjold recalled. “There’s a lot of excitement now about RNA biology, and this was one of the first inklings of how interesting RNA biology could be.”

With their NIH grant funding, they plan to explore the implications of their new findings and what that could mean for people with HIV.

“We’re trying to ask the question: Why is this mechanism there to begin with and what does it mean for an HIV infection?” Rekosh said. “It helps us understand the infection process better. It may also help us understand more about how the virus escapes the immune system.”

The researchers’ findings have been published online by the Journal of Virology and will appear in a forthcoming print edition. The article was authored by Emily A. Sloan of UVA; Mary F. Kearney of the National Cancer Institute; Laurie R. Gray of UVA; Kathryn Anastos of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Eric S. Daar of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center; Joseph Margolick of Johns Hopkins; Frank Maldarelli of the National Cancer Institute; and Hammarskjold and Rekosh.

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