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Protein Found in Coral Reefs may Protect Against HIV

First Posted: Apr 30, 2014 10:01 AM EDT
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Researchers from the National Cancer Institute's Center for Cancer Research have discovered that a group of proteins found in the coral reef may be capable of blocking HIV. 

"It's always thrilling when you find a brand-new protein that nobody else has ever seen before," said senior investigator Barry O'Keefe, Ph.D., deputy chief of the Molecular Targets Laboratory at center, via Science Codex. "And the fact that this protein appears to block HIV infection-and to do it in a completely new way-makes this truly exciting."

Researchers collected the proteins, also known as cnidarins--a feathery coral that's found off the northern coast of Australia.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as of 2012, about 35.3 million people were living with HIV, (of whom 1.6 million died), these findings bring hope in the face of the epidemic.

Studies have shown a pressing need for anti-HIV microbicides that women can use to stop infection without solely relying on a man's willingness to use a condom, according to Science Codex. The cnidarins could be used to help block transmission without causing the virus to become resistant to other HIV drugs.

"When developing new drugs, we're always concerned about the possibility of undermining existing successful treatments by encouraging drug resistance in the virus," said O'Keefe, via the news organization. "But even if the virus became resistant to these proteins, it would likely still be sensitive to all of the therapeutic options that are currently available."

He adds that "even if the virus became resistant to these proteins, it would likely still be sensitive to all of the therapeutic options that are currently available."

What's even more important about the cnidarians is that they appear to bind to the virus, stopping any fusion with the membrane of the T cells. According to Koreen Ramessar, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Cancer Institute and a member of the research team, this is "completely different from what we've seen with other proteins, so we think the cnidarin proteins have a unique mechanism of action."

For their next step, researchers said that they hope to produce large quantities of this "national treasure" in an effort to help make it work against the virus.

"The natural products extract repository is a national treasure," said O'Keefe, via Science Codex. "You never know what you might find. Hopefully, discoveries like this will encourage more investigators to use this resource to identify extracts with activity against infectious disease."

More information regarding the findings was presented at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

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