"This work stems from the novel approach to science that is the central mission of the Ragon Institute: to draw researchers from diverse scientific disciplines to catalyze new advances, the ultimate mission being to harness the immune system to prevent and cure human diseases," Walker says.
Typically when a vaccine for a disease such as smallpox or polio is given, exposure to viral fragments primes the body's immune system to respond powerfully if it encounters the real virus. With HIV, it appears that when immune cells in a vaccinated person attack viral peptides that they recognize, the virus quickly mutates its protein sequences so immune cells no longer recognize them.
To overcome this, scientists have tried analyzing viral proteins to find amino acids that don't often mutate, which would suggest that they are critical to the virus's survival. However, this approach ignores the fact that mutations elsewhere in the protein can compensate when those seemingly critical amino acids are forced to evolve, Chakraborty says.
The Ragon Institute team focused on defining how the virus's ability to survive depends on the sequences of its proteins, if they have multiple mutations. This knowledge could enable identification of combinations of amino acid mutations that are harmful to the virus. Vaccines that target those amino acids would force the virus to make mutations that weaken it.
With existing HIV protein sequence data as input, the researchers created a computer model that can predict the fitness of any possible sequence, enabling prediction of how specific mutations would affect the virus.
In this paper, the researchers focused on an HIV polyprotein called Gag, which is made up of several proteins that together are 500 amino acids long. The protein
|Contact: Kimberly Allen|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology