Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in Florida announced today they’ve developed an artificial molecule that can block HIV infection in monkeys for up to 40 weeks.
They published their findings in the journal Nature.
The new protein, called eCD4-Ig is similar in shape to antibodies the body produces naturally to fight off infection. It stops HIV from infecting healthy cells by blocking the virus at the two sites where it normally binds to cell receptors.
By blocking both receptor sites at once, the protein is effective against every strain of HIV and SIV (the monkey version of the virus) researchers tested.
The technique researchers used is similar to other kinds of cutting-edge genetic engineering. They injected a small strand of DNA into four rhesus monkeys that caused their cells to produce the new HIV blocking protein.
“Our compound is the broadest and most potent entry inhibitor described so far,” said Michael Farzan, the TSRI professor who led the effort, in a press statement. “Unlike antibodies, which fail to neutralize a large fraction of HIV-1 strains, our protein has been effective against all strains tested, raising the possibility it could offer an effective HIV vaccine alternative.”
The technique has not yet been tested for safety or effectiveness in humans. Farzan told the Wall Street Journal he hopes to begin human testing within a year, after further animal studies.
The protein is so powerful and the protection it offers is so long-lasting — blocking infection for 8 to 10 months — that scientists speculate it may also someday be used to keep the virus in check in the bodies of people who are already infected.
For the time being, the most promising avenue for the new research may be the development of a vaccine to protect high-risk populations, such as men who have sex with men without using a condom.
The study authors conclude that eCD4-Ig “could provide effective, long-term, and near universal protection from HIV-1.”