MU researchers look to combat HIV virus with recent findings

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COLUMBIA - University of Missouri researchers developed the most complete model yet of the HIV capsid protein, which takes them a step closer to forming a new therapeutic drug for the virus.

Stefan Sarafianos, University of Missouri associate professor of molecular microbiology immunology, said the new image of the protein helps them better understand the lifespan of the virus.

"We solved the crystal structure of a protein of the HIV virus and this adds to a large body of existing work," Sarafianos said. "And it's helping us to understand the fundamental steps of the life cycle of the virus."

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is the retrovirus that leads to AIDS - acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1.2 million people live with HIV in the United States.

Researchers used a technique called X-ray crystallography to unravel the protein. They took many copies of the protein and lured them into a patterned, crystalline lattice.

They then shot high-powered X-ray beams at the crystal. By learning how the X-rays scattered when they ricocheted off the proteins, the researchers made a 3-D image of the protein.

Sarafianos said the finding is important, because it can give researchers a better idea of the capsid core, which comprises many groups of the same protein repeated over and over symmetrically.

"What we have done is solve the crystal structure of a protein, which is called the capsid protein, and it is the building block of the large structure, which is called capsid core," Sarafianos said. "So the capsid core comprises about 1600 copies of these small proteins."

Sarafianos said understanding the capsid core is important because it contains the genetic information of the virus, which helps control the life cycle.

"The capsid core includes the nucleic acid of the virus, which is the genetic information, and this has to be released in the whole cell at the right place and at the right time," Sarafianos said.

He said releasing the information in the right place at the right time is what keeps the life cycle of the virus flowing and growing in the body.

He said researchers have been working on solving the protein structure for a long time.

"It's a structure that has been sought after for many years, approximately 20 years scientists have tried to solve that structure, and I guess we were lucky to do that recently," Sarafianos said.

But he said the more important aspect to the finding is that it gives scientists a new target in the virus to create therapeutic drugs.

Sarafianos said it's vital that scientists keep finding new targets in the virus, such as this capsid protein, because HIV patients eventually develop resistance to many of the drugs already created.

"It is important to continue working in HIV research to come up with new drugs, despite the fact that the existing ones are working quite well," Sarafianos said. "And the reason is, because the emergence of resistance that makes current drugs not useful in the near future. We need new drugs that target new areas, and we hope that the capsid protein is a new target that would allow us to make a new class of drugs."

Sarafianos said scientists recently received an grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund their research on creating a new drug to disrupt the viral capsid protein.

He said it would be ideal to develop the new drug within the next five years.