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HIV 'invisibility cloak' discovered

Friday, 8 November, 2013

Researchers have discovered how HIV can hide inside cells and remain unnoticed by the immune system, according to new research published in Nature this week. The HIV ‘invisibility cloak’ consists of two molecules that shield the virus, allowing it to replicate without prompting an immune response. Whilst it is still in the very early stages, the authors state that the new findings could lead to the development of new treatments for HIV, as well as helping to improve existing ones.

Generally, the body can identify and destroy foreign infections quickly, however HIV works by attacking a type of immune system cell called the T-helper cell. The T-helper cell plays an essential part in the immune system by helping to co-ordinate all the other cells to fight illnesses. HIV damages and destroys these T-helper cells, and as HIV infects more cells, the immune system becomes weaker and less likely to fight off ailments. Without treatment, HIV can develop into AIDS.

The ability of HIV to replicate unnoticed by the immune system has perplexed scientists for some time. This study shows that upon entry to the cell, HIV acquires two molecules that make it invisible to the body’s innate immune system, or the body’s first line of defence, which would ordinarily activate an antiviral response. Upon discovery of theses molecules, the scientists used an experimental drug to block the shield provided by these molecules, meaning the autoimmune response was triggered in laboratory conditions.

Lead author of the study, Professor Greg Towers stated: “HIV is extremely adept at hiding from our body's natural defences, which is part of the reason the virus is so dangerous. Now we've identified the virus' invisibility cloak, and how to expose it, we've uncovered a weakness that could be exploited for new HIV treatments.”

The authors stressed that significant amount of further research needs doing, both in and out of laboratory environments, to understand the potential of this approach for treatment and vaccine research.