We're a little crazy, about science!

A New way to Fight HIV, Using your Genome!


Outsmarting something as “simple” as a virus doesn’t seem like much of a challenge. If only you could set it down to take the SAT’s or something. Unfortunately, in the body fighting HIV is more like guerrilla warfare, you take the big losses for a small win. This is no way to wage a war, but HIV is smart. It mutates and sidesteps anything we’ve been able to throw at it. We don’t have a cure, or a vaccine, but we do have scientists trying. However, new research has made a crucial jump to throwing a curveball at HIV and with it, a possible cure.

A major hurdle in eradicating HIV-1 has been outsmarting the frequent mutations, or changing coats of the virus [the shell that protects the virus itself] caused by its high rate of replication. Researchers have focused on neutralizing antibodies directed against the HIV-1 envelope in order to stop the virus, but the antibodies haven’t been able to keep up with this constant change.

[Loony Hint: For those confused imagine HIV as a whole block of houses, each with lots of doors leading outside. Each door needs a different key to get into, no matching locks in this one. Obviously some keys would be easier to recreate than others, but then suddenly all the houses locks get changed again.

Yeah maybe you get into a few doors, but you need to start all over again. Then throw into the mix the houses on the block keep growing and growing so instead of 10 you have 100. This is why it’s so hard to fight HIV the second you “key” a lock, the lock changes and you can’t get what you need to stop the virus. This is a very over-simplified example, please keep that in mind.]

Nixon’s research team found that the right antibody directed against an ancestral fossil virus buried within everyone’s genomes might be able to target HIV-1 and neutralize it. You read that right, we might have the master key to HIV already built into our genes.

“What we’ve found is an antibody that recognizes these fossil viruses within all our genomes, which can neutralize HIV-1 in a way that has never been seen before,” said Nixon, chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “We have found in vitro, in the test tube, that you can actually have an antibody work against HIV-1, which is not directed against the HIV-1 virus itself.”

In his research, Nixon and colleagues found that by targeting the fossil virus — an ancestral version of a retrovirus that has become a largely useless part of our DNA — that these antibodies could focus on a single fixed envelope, as it does not change like the constant changes of HIV-1’s envelope outer coat. This discovery provides a new, therapeutic target to beat this particular coat, or variation.

A quick refresher on how HIV replicates for those who want it:


I know that conspiracy theorists might have a field day with this, but keep in mind that viral DNA makes up huge chunks of our genome. It’s just how we evolved and how other competing organisms evolve with us. Look at things like plasmids, some just attach their DNA to a host. The bigger picture here is that, if this really pans out and works to end the horrid fight against HIV, then frankly we got lucky.

Some unsuspecting virus that got attached to our genome, from who knows how long ago just happened to have the right answer to the question that had been stumping scientists. That is just how things work sometimes, we ask the questions and nature has the answers already for us.

Here’s hoping that, one day, HIV becomes more like a cold and less like a life sentence.

Can’t get enough? You probably want the full study —here!

Michaud, H., SenGupta, D., de Mulder, M., Deeks, S., Martin, J., Kobie, J., Sacha, J., & Nixon, D. (2014). Cutting Edge: An Antibody Recognizing Ancestral Endogenous Virus Glycoproteins Mediates Antibody-Dependent Cellular Cytotoxicity on HIV-1-Infected Cells The Journal of Immunology DOI: 10.4049/jimmunol.1302108


2 responses

  1. This is awesome, and exciting. Go Dr. Bailey!


    July 17, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    • Aww you read the abstract!! 😉


      July 17, 2014 at 10:49 pm

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