NEW YORK (October 31, 2013) -- Collaborating scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and Weill Cornell Medical College have determined the first atomic-level structure of the tripartite HIV envelope protein -- long considered one of the most difficult targets in structural biology and of great value for medical science.
The new data provide the most detailed picture yet of the AIDS-causing virus's complex envelope, including sites that future vaccines will try to mimic to elicit a protective immune response.
"Most of the prior structural studies of this envelope complex focused on individual subunits, but we've needed the structure of the full complex to properly define the sites of vulnerability that could be targeted, for example with a vaccine," said Dr. Ian A. Wilson, the Hansen Professor of Structural Biology at TSRI and a senior author of the new research with biologists Drs. Andrew Ward and Bridget Carragher of TSRI and virologist and immunologist Dr. John Moore of Weill Cornell.
The findings were published in two papers in Science Express, the early online edition of the journal Science, on October 31, 2013.
A Difficult Target
HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, infects about 34 million people globally, 10 percent of whom are children, according to World Health Organization estimates. Although antiviral drugs are now used to manage many HIV infections, especially in developed countries, scientists have long sought a vaccine that can prevent new infections and would help perhaps to ultimately eradicate the virus from the human population.
However, none of the HIV vaccines tested so far has come close to providing adequate protection. This failure is due largely to the challenges posed by HIV's envelope protein, known to virologists as Env.
HIV's Env is not a single, simple protein but rather a "trimer" made of three identical, loosely connected structure
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Weill Cornell Medical College