Sunday, April 3, 2011

Advancing Against AIDS

Your body is naturally equipped with a highly skilled defense force, complete with advanced targeting systems, devastating weaponry, and specially-trained assassins.  It is this force that protects you from invaders and attackers trying to force their way in and wreak havoc with your body.  But this system isn’t flawless, and those pesky pathogens can be crafty, and every now and then, one of them sneaks by.  This is where medical science comes in.  Medicine is the cavalry, designed to give your body’s natural defenses a helping hand in warding off nature’s more resilient marauders.

Sometimes an enemy comes along that your body really needs some help with.  Not every disease is as docile as a rhinovirus.  Way toward the top of Medicine’s Most Wanted list is HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, responsible for the deaths of well over a million people a year.  A vaccine for combating HIV has evaded medical science for years, but recent research brings new hope to the battle.

Like I said, your body has its own natural defenses, but sometimes it’s necessary for scientists to go in and make some upgrades.  In a study published by FASEB, researchers have done so quite literally, taking a defensive protein straight from the human immune system, stripping it down and making it better than before.  The protein in question is called RANTES.  It’s been known for a while now that RANTES helps to protect the human body from HIV, but enlisting its help for an anti-HIV drug isn’t so simple – you can’t just pump the body full of RANTES, because too much of the protein would have some potentially dangerous side-effects. 

So in an inspiring bit of biological engineering, these scientists have made their own modifications to the protein, bit by bit removing the pieces that can cause harmful side-effects.  What they’re left with is a streamlined molecule specially designed to ward off HIV.  This is a major development in our battle against AIDS.  This modified protein could be an essential ingredient to anti-HIV drugs in the future, and the researchers believe that this technique has some potential for treating other diseases as well.

Meanwhile, in Boston, a separate group of scientists has acquired a new target for an AIDS vaccine.  A vaccine basically trains your immune system to recognize a certain type of harmful invader so that it can fight it off when it shows up.  Coming up with a vaccine for HIV is difficult because the virus mutates so quickly, and already several different varieties of HIV exist.  Finding a way to defend against all of them is a challenge.  But this study found that there is a specific portion of the virus’s protein shell that appears to be very similar from one strain of HIV to another – a vaccine that targets this area of the virus may be able to protect against multiple types of HIV, which would be another major blow to the big bad pandemic.
This new "vaccine target" is part of the
protein envelope surrounding the virus

And HIV isn’t the only major disease under pressure from new advances in medicine.  Right next to HIV on the Most Wanted list is malaria, responsible for nearly a million deaths a year, but over the past several months a number of studies have surfaced proposing new methods of treating or preventing malarial infections.  Another new study this week suggests that insulin may hold promise as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

All in all, it’s an exciting time in the realm of preventive medicine.  Keep your eyes open.  The next miracle cure could be just around the corner.

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