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Montreal team makes HIV discovery

 

Virus gets help from a cell protein. Finding is expected to help development of new class of drugs to combat the disease

 

 

CHARLIE FIDELMAN, The Gazette

 

Published: Saturday, July 14

Montreal researchers have identified a novel target that's an accomplice to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The virus doesn't work alone, but recruits a collaborator - a cell protein - in its mission to multiply and spread through the body, explained Eric Cohen, a professor of medicine at the UniversitE de MontrEal.

Cohen and his team of researchers at the Institut de recherches cliniques de MontrEal yesterday published the findings in PLoS Pathogens, a peer- reviewed journal that is issued monthly by the Public Library of Science.

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Despite having transformed HIV/AIDS from a fatal disease to to a chronic one, scientists are still at a loss to explain how the human immunodeficiency virus causes illness and why it persists despite highly effective anti-retroviral drug therapy.

The discovery by Cohen's team is expected to open the door to the development of a new class of drugs to combat the disease, Canada's top HIV experts stated yesterday.

Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) leads to AIDS by depleting essential immune cells called CD4+T lymphocytes in infected individuals.

Key to this process is a small HIV protein, said Cohen, who identified the viral protein R (Vpr) a decade ago while at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, affiliated with Harvard University in Cambridge. Mass..

"The role of this protein, called E3 ubiquitin ligase complex, is likely to control the orderly division of cells," Cohen said.

HIV uses this protein to weaken infected immune cells. The cells then stop dividing and die, he explained.

Also, the protein helps sabotage immune cells so the virus can harness their resources for its own purposes - that is, to replicate and spread the infection.

"The virus is creating an environment inside the cells where it can multiply better. Ultimately, the cells will die," said Cohen, who holds the Canada Research Chair in human retrovirology at the U de M.

Although proud of his work and of the team effort in his laboratory, Cohen cautioned that new therapies will not be available for years to come.

"As with all basic fundamental discoveries, it will not lead to new types of (drugs) for six or seven years," he said.

But it's a very important finding, said Rafick-Pierre SEkaly, a U de M immunologist and AIDS expert who was not involved in this discovery.

"We are always looking for new ways to neutralize the virus, so finding a new target is very appealing," SEkaly said.

Cohen's work explains how the virus corrupts immune cells, said virologist Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill AIDS Centre at the Jewish General Hospital.

Wainberg described Cohen's finding as "exactly the kind of discovery that will excite drug companies."

[email protected] thegazette.canwest.com

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