June 25, 2015  Print

Researchers at Westmead Millennium Institute for Medical Research have discovered how the HIV virus circumvents the body’s early warning system at the very first point of viral contact, and they now have a better understanding of how the virus gets a toe-hold infection in patients.

The research, recently published in the leading  journal for virus research, Journal of Virology, has shown that when HIV infects the first cells it contacts during sexual transmission the virus completely shuts down their natural ability to warn other cells of the threat.

Usually, a virus-infected cell releases interferons which act as an early warning system to other cells nearby, alerting them that they are infected with a virus. The nearby cells react by heightening their anti-viral defences to prepare for the oncoming viral infection so they can fight it off.

Lead investigator, Dr Andrew Harman, from Westmead Millennium Institute’s Centre for Virus Research says, “Our research has shown three main things: how the virus reacts with two types of cells at the point of infection, the exact point in the interferon signalling pathway that the virus targets, and also which viral proteins are involved.

“Our ability to identify the precise mechanism by which HIV shuts down the interferon system is a new and exciting finding in HIV research,” said Dr Harman.

The research opens a path for exploring drug treatments which block the virus’ ability to shut down the cells’ warning system, restoring the body’s ability to detect HIV and better defend itself from infection.

Potential avenues of investigation could include pre- and post-sexual transmission treatment.
Pre-infection treatment is an important consideration for countries where the high rate of unprotected sex is resulting in alarming HIV infection rates to essentially vaccinate vulnerable populations against infection.

Post-infection treatment is also worthwhile investigating as it takes a while for the virus to take hold of the immune system and there is a short window where treatment could prevent virus getting a toe-hold in people who have been exposed to the virus.