Breaking Down HIV's Outer Shell

Researchers develop complete model of HIV's outer shell

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Scientists have finally developed a complete model of the HIV virus's outer shell, a process that took years because of the virus's "tricky" proteins.

HIV is one of the leading killers of people around the world, currently infecting an estimated 33 million and claiming millions of lives every year.

The Scripps Research Institute and the University of Virginia have unraveled the virus's structure that transmits HIV genetic material into human cells. The virus works by binding to human cells and injecting its "capsules" inside them, which then break apart and release HIV's genetic material.

The virus then uses this material to replicate within the cells, eventually repackaging itself with new viral shells called "capsids" that burst out of the human cell and continue infection. Blocking the virus at this important "capsid" stage is vital to stopping infection.

While scientists can use certain technologies to determine how virus components are formed, understanding how the HIV capsid forms is particularly difficult because it is flexible and not rigid like other virus capsids.

This led the team to breaking the capsid into smaller bits and figuring out their structures. They were able to essentially "trick" the capsid bits into cooperating and forming easily readable shapes.

Using further analysis of the individual elements of the capsids, which eventually took years, the scientists were able to assemble a complete atomic model of the HIV capsid. An important next step is to identify "weak points" in the capsid that they can exploit with drugs in order to inhibit the virus.

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Review Date: 
January 20, 2011
Last Updated:
January 20, 2011