Researchers look to use HIV protein against diseases

By Peter Kim

University researchers think they may be able to improve treatment against a range of diseases such as cancer and cystic fibrosis through the use of a most unlikely helper: the HIV virus.

Gerard Wong, University professor of material science and engineering, physics and bioengineering, is the head of a multi-disciplinary research team that is trying to discover how a protein from HIV is able to effectively move through cells.

The team hopes to use that knowledge to improve preventative medicine and therapy.

“There is a protein called tat from HIV that is very good at getting through cell membranes,” Wong said. “Our research seeks to explain how this works.”

Scientists could attach beneficial agents to the protein such as drugs or DNA that will be able to enter cells as rapidly and effectively as the HIV virus, Wong said.

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“If you have a particular drug, and you want to put it into the cell, this is a good way to do it,” said Vernita Gordon, University postdoctoral researcher.

Wong said the protein could be applied to chemotherapy drugs used in cancer treatment. If combined with the right targeting strategy, the drugs could be made to enter only cancer cells and not healthy cells. This would yield the positive effects of chemotherapy without the debilitating side effects commonly associated with the treatment, such as hair loss and a compromised immune system.

“To kill cancer cells and not healthy ones, that’s the Holy Grail of drug delivery,” Wong said.

Use of the protein could also improve gene therapy, which is used to treat disorders by inserting healthy genes into cells and tissues. Cystic fibrosis, a fatal genetic disorder that is caused by a single gene mutation, is an example of a disease that may eventually be treated with gene therapy.

“People with cystic fibrosis on average do not live past their fourth decade of life. If you were able to fix that one gene, you could (treat cystic fibrosis),” Wong said.

The process by which the protein allows drugs to enter cells can be described in terms of a snack food analogy, Wong said.

“If you’ve ever eaten Pringles or a doughnut, you can understand,” he said.

When the protein binds to the outside of a cell, it causes a part of the outside to deform into a saddle shape, like a Pringles chip.

The deformation allows holes to form so that the drug or gene can enter the cell.

The curvature of the hole is exactly the same as the curvature on the inside of the hole of a doughnut.

“If you think about it, the kind of curvature in the hole of a doughnut is basically the same kind of saddle-shaped curvature found on a Pringles chip.” Wong said.

Although the research revolves around a small part of an HIV protein, Wong emphasized that the protein itself is harmless.

“It is not possible to get AIDS from this,” Wong said. “It’s pretty much not involved in our research. We don’t ever touch HIV. I could run to the lab right now and just make the (protein).”

The research is conducted by scientists from many different fields, such as materials science and physics, and it involves topics in mathematics, chemistry and biophysics.

“We want to take part of HIV and bioengineer it to work for us rather than against us for a change,” Wong said.