Scientists find another way HIV can hide from vaccines

New research into how the HIV virus forms so-called “trimers” on its surface to escape the immune system may help lead to more effective treatment.

A Yale-led team has discovered yet another molecular trick HIV uses to survive immune system attacks, a finding that may influence efforts to develop an effective vaccine against HIV/AIDS.

The virus forms specifically shaped structures called trimers on its surface, which are designed to attach to and infect cells and produce more HIV. To escape the immune system, the trimer can change shapes over time into three separate conformations. Vaccines now under development target one form of those structures in order to spur an immune system response. However, the new study published April 10 in the journal Nature shows that the HIV may escape immune system detection by hiding in yet another trimer conformation, called State 1. 

A low resolution trimer image from cryo-electron tomograms of complete virions from 2008.
HIV forms trimers to attach to cells and its conformation is of great interest to scientists developing vaccines.

Patients fight HIV by developing broadly neutralizing antibodies, and most of these antibodies recognize the State 1 conformation, the authors report.

If these antibodies can bind to a trimer in State 1, any immunogens in a vaccine should recognize this conformation,” said Walther Mothes, professor of microbial pathogenesis and co-senior author of the paper. “Surprisingly, however, current immunogens recognize the State 2 conformation and apparently elicit State 2-specific antibodies.”

Mothes’ lab plans to help determine the State 1’s structure, which could potentially lead to immunogens that recognize this conformation.

Yale’s Maolin Lu is lead author of the paper. Scott C. Blanchard of Weill Cornell Medicine and Joseph G. Sodroski of Harvard Medical School are co-senior authors.

Mothes is also leader of Yale Cancer Center’s Virus and Other Infection-associated Cancers Research Program.


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