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Science & Technology

New Research Could Lead To Improved HIV Medication

This is a confocal fluorescence microscopy image of NLRX1 (green) in a HeLa cell (blue, nuclear stain).
Haitao Guo
This is a confocal fluorescence microscopy image of NLRX1 (green) in a HeLa cell (blue, nuclear stain).

Scientists at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla and colleagues at the University of North Carolina reported Thursday that they have identified a human protein that weakens the immune response to HIV and other viruses.

They said their findings, published today in Cell Host & Microbe, could lead to improved HIV medication, better viral vaccines and a new approach to treat cancer.

"Our study provides critical insight on a paramount issue in HIV research — why is the body unable to mount an efficient immune response to HIV to prevent transmission?" said Sumit Chanda, director of SBP's Immunity and Pathogenesis Program. "This research shows that the host protein NLRX1 is responsible — it's required for HIV infection and works by repressing the innate immune response."


The problem is that research has shown that an early and vigorous immune response is necessary to control the HIV virus, according to the scientists. They said their research uncovered how the protein promotes HIV infection and blocks the function of the immune system.

Chanda said the protein displays some deficiencies that will be further studied.

Jenny Ting of the UNC School of Medicine said the protein's impact on the immune system is similar to previous discoveries about cancer, and are called "immune checkpoints."

The checkpoints are designed to prevent an over-activation of the immune system, which could damage healthy cells. Tumor cells often take advantage of checkpoints to escape detection of the immune system, according to the scientists.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the North Carolina-based Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award for Medical Scientists.