Canadian and US researchers team have solved a major genetic mystery: How a protein in some people's DNA guards them against killer immune diseases such as HIV. Reporting in Nature Medicine, the scientists explain how the protein, FOX03a, shields against viral attacks and how the discovery should help in the development of a HIV vaccine.
"HIV infection is characterized by the slow demise of T-cells, in particular central memory cells, which can mediate lifelong protection against viruses," said lead researcher Rafick-Pierre Sékaly, from Université de Montréal. "Our group has found how the key protein, FOX03a, is vital to the survival of central memory cells that are defective in HIV-infected individuals even if they are treated."
The breakthrough came after studying three groups of men: One HIV-negative sample, a second HIV-positive group whose infection was successfully controlled through drugs and a third group whose HIV did not show any symptoms. Called "elite controllers", this third group fended off infection without treatment because their immune system maintained its resilient immune memory through the regulation of the FOX03a protein.
"Given their perfect resistance to HIV infection, elite controllers represent the ideal study group to examine how proteins are responsible for the maintenance of an immune system with good anti-viral memory," said co-researcher Elias El Haddad. "This is the first study to examine, in people rather than animals, what shields the body's immune system from infection and to pinpoint the fundamental role of FOX03a in defending the body."
Beyond HIV treatment, Dr. Sékaly said his team's discovery offers promise for other immune diseases. "The discovery of FOX03a will enable scientists to develop appropriate therapies for other viral diseases that weaken the immune system," he said, citing cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis C, as well as organ or bone marrow transplant rejection.
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Source: University of Montreal