A form of ribonucleic acid (RNA) developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has the potential to be a new weapon against HIV. The short form of RNA turns off genes vital to the production of proteins HIV uses to enter and infect cells.

"If many obstacles can be surmounted this could be a basis for intervention in HIV treatment," said research leader Dr. Phillip A. Sharp. Sharp won the 1993 Nobel Prize for the discovery of "split genes," changing how scientists look at evolution and advancing research on hereditary diseases, including some cancers. The new research was published Sunday in the online edition of Nature Medicine (2002;8).

RNA is present in most cells, carrying genetic information and operating in the production of proteins. In recent years, scientists have discovered that double stranded RNA can silence genes in a process called RNA interference. The component that accomplishes this, small interfering RNA, or siRNA, was reported just last year.

Sharp's team made two different siRNAs that targeted cell surface proteins essential for HIV to infect a cell. They targeted the parts of the virus that make the protein as well as a regulator protein. "In both cases we were able to show that these small RNAs in cells would inhibit the infection by HIV" in laboratory work, Sharp said in a telephone interview. "The RNA interference process is a very new development in biological science and is quite exciting. It will move out of the lab soon... in the next several years," Sharp said. The team is currently working with mouse genes. "It'll be some time before more elaborate experiments," Sharp said.

Dr. Louis M. Mansky of Ohio State University, who was not part of the research team, said there have been difficulties in getting similar strategies to work in clinical settings. In lab tests, the RNA reduced, but did not eliminate, HIV, and thus Mansky said it might be useful in addition to current AIDS drugs. But he added, "I don't think this, by itself, would be superior to the drug cocktails now used for treating HIV individuals."

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