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Discovery paves way for new drugs to halt retroviruses, including HIV

A discovery by University researchers provides a target for developing new types of drugs to stop retroviruses, including HIV, from infecting cells and spreading through the body.

The research team, led by Nikunj Somia, Ph.D., assistant professor of genetics, cell biology, and development, identified a cell line that is resistant to three types of retroviruses, including human immunodeficiency virus type 1.

Because HIV does not have enough proteins of its own to complete its life cycle, it must use proteins in the cells it infects in order to survive. Currently, the drugs available to fight HIV act on proteins that the virus itself produces.

“The downfall of existing HIV drugs is that since the virus is constantly changing, the drugs eventually stop working, and the virus becomes drug-resistant,” Somia says. “We hypothesized that if we could find the proteins within the cells that HIV uses to make more copies of itself, we would find a potential new and more effective way to fight HIV.”

To search for these proteins, the researchers chemically induced random mutations in the DNA of certain cell lines. Then they infected the mutated cell lines with HIV to which they had added a protein that immediately kills cells.

In the HIV-infected cell lines that lived, the virus was able to get into the cell, but it was attacked by the cell’s protein-destroying proteasome, which prevented the virus from making more copies of itself.

“Finding the switch that activates cells to seek and destroy the virus could be a powerful therapeutic agent in the fight against HIV and in controlling AIDS,” Somia says. 

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