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Ed Yeates ReportingUtah researchers have uncovered a mechanism the AIDS virus uses to weaken and destroy immunity.
People with AIDS die because their immune system no longer fights off infections and cancer. Scientists already knew the virus used a gene called VPR to pull off its deadly masquerade that eventually destroys white blood cells.
But in a secure lab at the University of Utah School of Medicine, molecular biologist Vicente Planelles and his colleagues discovered how it does it.
Dr. Vincente Planelles, U of U Molecular Biologist: "There's many ways to trigger cell death and now we know that HIV is utilizing one of those and we know which, so I think this is very important."
Here's what they found. The villainous viral gene, VPR, kidnaps a normal gene called ATR from inside the white blood cells. ATR normally stops damaged cells from replicating until they can repair themselves. But with ATR now in captivity, the HIV virus turns it around as a weapon to stop white blood cells from reproducing.
For those who specifically study viruses, the discovery here at the university is significant because it takes researchers one step closer to understanding how the AIDS virus dismantles the immune system.
Dr. Vincente Planelles, U of U Molecular Biologist: "There is a possibility that interfering with VPR’s ability to activate this pathway may actually be of clinical benefit. So we are very encouraged that this is theoretically possible."
Possible for future drugs which might block HIV's attack. But that's not all. Four years ago Planelles discovered the virus' own VPR gene kills cancer cells in culture. There's an irony. Stop AIDS but turn the tables on the virus, using it's own gene now as a weapon against cancer.
Planelles says there's still a lot more to unravel. The development of any new drugs is still probably five to ten years away.