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    Matt Shachat is a junior majoring in Chemistry and Chinese. He is an undergraduate researcher in the Scheck group at Tufts University. Ariq Rahman is a junior majoring in Biochemistry and Chinese.
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    The Question – How can we treat and cure HIV when normal methods are ineffective?

    Why hasn’t HIV been cured yet? The road to curing a disease is simple in idea: isolate the antigen of a particular pathogen, introduce a less virulent form presenting that antigen to the immune system, and the memory B cells take care of any future infection. This is the basis of our acquired immune system. However, there are ways to get around this system and HIV capitalizes on three in particular.

    Firstly, HIV doesn’t present with a constant antigen. Due to its high degree of mutability, the immune system’s memory response to one particular subtype of HIV that presents that antigen is unable to deal with all of the virus in the body. The remaining viral particles all present with a different antigen and are then free to infect other cells while the immune system fights to catch up.

    Secondly, HIV kills immune cells. HIV targets cytotoxic T cells because they promote apoptosis of virally-infected host cells. Once this last line of defense is breached and neutralized, infected cells cannot be easily destroyed. These cells create immature copies of the virus that then leave the cells and mature to infect other cells.

    Lastly and most importantly, HIV can live in a host cell for years undetectably if it manages to integrate its DNA into the host’s genome. This means that it does not matter whether or not a cell presents with viral proteins – HIV could be lurking in the genome. The key to this survival skill, however, relies on the speed and accuracy with which the virus can turn its viral mRNA transcript into host DNA. This all hinges on the enzyme reverse transcriptase.

    How do we treat a virus that is seemingly incurable, destroys our defenses, and constantly changes? We target the linchpin in its life cycle, HIV reverse transcriptase, and prevent the virus from copying itself – thus preventing any further damage and neutering any existing virus particles inside the host.

    To learn more about how we treat HIV, go to The Answer.

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