The specific process by which the HIV virus infects healthy T cells was unknown, until now.
However, a George Mason University researcher team has now finally revealed the process, with the principal investigator, HIV researcher Yuntao Wu, saying that he hopes this breakthrough will start a new line on inquiry into how researchers can use this knowledge to create drugs that could limit or halt HIV infection.
The study outlined a new understanding on how T cells—which are the target cells that the HIV virus infects—move and migrate when hijacked by the virus.
“The discovery adds to our understanding of how HIV initiates the infection of human T cells, which leads to their eventual destruction and the development of AIDS,” said Wu, a professor of molecular and microbiology at Mason.
Researchers and doctors have known for some time that the HIV virus, rather than directly killing healthy T cells, actually hijacks them. This eventually leads to their destruction. So the virus essentially turns the infected T cells (also known as CD4T cells or helper T cells) into a factory for creating even more HIV. Learning more about how the cells are infected could be a key step toward figuring out how to stop infection altogether.
The researchers discovered that LIM domain kinase, or LIMK triggers a cell to move, almost acting like a propeller. This cell movement is essential for HIV infection. This discovery marks the first time that a research team has uncovered the involvement of LIMK in HIV infection.
Building upon these results, the researchers then used a drug to trigger similar LIMK activation and found that it increased infection of T cells. Of course, the researchers ultimately want to decrease the infection of T cells—so they worked backwards and found something very promising.
“When we engineered the cell to inhibit LIMK activity, the cell became relatively resistant to HIV infection,” said Wu.
In other words, the researchers engineered human T cells that were not easily infected by HIV. This finding suggests that, in the future, drugs could be developed based on LIMK inhibition.
The study has been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.