Sleeping Gene May Hold Key to HIV Prevention

An ongoing research has a hot topic among health experts as a long-dormant gene could hold the key in protecting humans from HIV.

Nitya Venkataraman of the University of Central Florida has managed to reawaken a group of guardian genes called retrocyclins, which has been sleeping in our genomes for over 7 million years.  The retrocyclins enable monkeys to protect themselves from viruses similar to HIV and this research hopes that it can do the same for humans.  Several safety tests and clinical trials have been conducted so far and the results have been promising.

Retrocyclins are the only circular proteins in the human body.  They are formed from a ring of 18 amino acids and belong to a group of proteins called defensins.  As its name implies, the defensins defend the body against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other foreign microbes.  Retrocyclins were first discovered in the white blood cells of macaques, baboons, and orangutans.

Although previous experiments have proven that retrocyclins are effective stopping HIV from infiltrating a host cell, these genes do not seem to work on humans.  Retrocyclins in humans developed a mutation over the course of evolution and now these protein-producing genes stop early on, making them abridged and useless.  Nevertheless, the retrocyclins in humans remain intact and 90% identical to those of monkeys.

Venkataraman and her team have managed to awaken these genes by two ways:  gene transfer and using a simple antibiotic.  Both methods restored the cell’s ability to manufacture the protective proteins.  Gene transfer therapy, however, may not be practical in African countries where HIV is more rampant.  The research team believes they have found an alternative therapy with a group of antibiotics called aminoglycosides.

The aminoglycosides react with our cell’s protein-making machinery so they make more mistakes than usual.  However, it also attacks the mutation in retrocyclins, making them fully-built again.  The research has been promising, and Venkataraman thinks that with more work, aminoglycoside-based creams could be used to prevent HIV infections.

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