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Researchers from Duke University in Washington have determined a key protein that makes up the HIV envelope, which will enable scientists to focus vaccine research

The gp41 membrane proximal external region (MPER) has long eluded researchers as its “dyanamic” reactions with the host cells cause it to be unstable, thus rendering it unsuitable for traditional imaging techniques such as x-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. The team got around this problem with use of protein engineering, sophisticated NMR and software specifically designed to run on limited data.

“One reason vaccine development is such a difficult problem is that HIV is exceptionally good at evading the immune system. The virus has all these devious strategies to hide from the immune system,”  said Bruce Donald, author of the study – published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team from Duke University believe that protein gp41 and its partner protein gp120 could be HIV’s “Achilles’ Heel”. Leonard Spicer, senior author and a professor of biochemistry and radiology explained that they were targeting the HIV envelope, which is the mechanism used to infect new host cells. This is because “it is relatively conserved” – which means it stays largely similar between virus mutations and subtypes, making it a logical target for vaccine research.

You can read the full paper over at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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