The Search for Disarming the HIV Virus by Removing Its Cholesterol

Spring 2012

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The winter issue of Being Alive's Newsletter presented a "top 10 list" of the most important HIV discoveries of 2011. One of these discoveries involved the connection between depleting the HIV virus of the cholesterol in the membrane surrounding the virus, and the resulting inability of the HIV virus to continue to be effective.

Ever since the first public reported HIV/AIDS case in 1981, research scientists within medical, biological, and biochemical fields have search for an effective treatment and vaccine against the virus. Unfortunately this virus sets itself apart from other viruses such as small pox and hepatitis B by having a "behavior" that makes a productive vaccine difficult to produce. One such difficulty is that an enzyme in the HIV virus that is responsible for making copies (and thus more virus's) of the core inside the virus, make mistakes in the reproduction process.

These mistakes lead to that the new copy don't look exactly the same as the old, which in turns leads to that there exists different "types" of the HIV virus, and therefore the drug that is engineered to kill off/suppress one specific type is ineffective on another. Furthermore, these new HIV types can combine and make additional secondary, tertiary, etc. types. Since the HIV virus in a human being is capable of replicate themselves to several billions in just one day, a multitude of HIV types can exist within one single human body.


The method to kill off and/or disarm the virus must then lay in how to damage the part of the virus that all HIV types have in common. Such a method is what Dr. Adriano Boasso of Imperial Collage in London, UK, together with a team of researchers from US, Italy and Austria, may have developed by stripping the virus of its cholesterol that is contained in the membrane surrounding the core, which plays an important role in the virus's ability to reproduce. This was done in a laboratory setting and the result was published in the acclaimed medical journal Blood -- Journal of the American Society of Hematology in their online version on September 19, 2011 and in the hardcopy on November 10, 2011.

Before explaining the procedure of the research and why this is viewed as a successful method that has strong potential to be developed further, let's take a look at the anatomy and reproduction process of the HIV virus from a layman's perspective, to gain a good understanding and knowledge of the discovery.

Anatomy of Reproduction Process of the HIV Virus

Any cell or virus always contain an outer layer called a membrane that regulates what enters the cell and what stays outside. For example, a healthy human cell on our skin can absorb the full spectrum of D vitamins from the sun, while blocking the harmful Ultra-Violet rays, however this process brakes down with overexposure. Each cell in all organisms (including viruses) also contain DNA and/or RNA, and proteins that are essential for them to live. An important factor to know is that while the DNA contain all the genetic instructions for the functioning and development of the organism, the RNA allows for the encoding of the genetic information.

There are many groups/families of viruses. One group of viruses exist that only contain and use RNA for its reproduction, the RNA virus. Another virus group, call retrovirus group, also consist of only RNA in its core but use its host cell's DNA when reproducing to make new copies of itself. This group that the HIV virus belongs to.


The HIV virus is slightly larger than most of the retroviruses, but still it only has a diameter of 120 nanometer (about 5 millionth of an inch). It can be hard to grasp the smallness of such a "particle." However if you can think about how small a wave is from light that we humans can see, ranging from red (largest) to violet (smallest), then the diameter of the HIV virus can compare the light wave next step over, the Ultra-Violet, which is impossible for humans to see.

Figure 1 shows a diagram of the HIV virus. The HIV virus has several interactive components that makes it being able to reproduce. The outer layer (the lipid membrane) consists of fatty molecules that was taken from the membrane of the human cell it infected. Complex proteins within the virus called Docking Glycoprotein and Transmembrane Glycoprotein helps to anchor the virus. The viral core are two single stranded HIV RNA and each of these contain a complete copy of the HIV virus. The enzymes responsible for copying and integrating the new copies are attached to the RNA.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Diagram of a HIV virus where its interactive components can be seen. Because "mistakes" are made in the copying process, different types of genetic code within the RNA exists. Cutting off the "communication" components, i.e., the function of the Docking proteins and Lipid membrane they are attached to will stop the reproduction process.

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This article was provided by Being Alive. It is a part of the publication Being Alive Newsletter. Visit Being Alive's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.

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