FRIDAY, JUNE 22, 2018

Electron microscopy advances uncover weaknesses in HIV and other viruses

Electron microscopy advances are changing what we know about the HIV virus.
Electron microscopy advances are changing what we know about the HIV virus. | Cheng Lab

Researchers at the University of California-Davis have made advances in the science of electron microscopy that have allowed them to detect weaknesses in HIV and other viruses.

HIV and similar viruses are difficult to treat because of the rapidly changing proteins on the surface of the viruses’ cells. Studying these weaknesses could prove helpful in developing better vaccines and therapies that would focus on these weaknesses to eradicate the virus.

The protein encasing HIV cells is called an envelope, or Env. A protein related to Env is the gp120, which is a small mechanism enabling the HIV virus to dominate host cells.

Research from UC Davis published in Friday's edition of Nature Scientific Reports suggests the loop enabling the gp120 protein to shift itself into flower-like shapes is at the base of the cell’s structure, as opposed to the top, which is what scientists previously believed.

These details could be the defining difference in creating vaccines and therapies.

"This challenges the existing dogma concerning the architecture of HIV Env immunogen," Professor R. Holland Cheng, whose lab conducted the study, said.

Scientists at Cheng's lab have modified the electron microscopy technology into cryoelectron therapy to understand how viruses attack host cells and their attributes to attack other cells. Rather than using the traditional method of dosing samples with heavy metals, the new cryoelectron techniques freeze biological anomalies.

Once the cells are frozen, the scientists take pictures to better study the details. Because of how these images are taken from multiple angles, the pictures provide a “missing wedge” in studying viral cells.

Through this process, scientists have discovered that picornavirus (related to colds, infections, polio, hepatitis A and hand-foot-mouth disease) cause bubbles or vesicles inside host cells. After entering through the endosome (a bubble on the surface of the cell), the picornavirus cells duplicate genetic material (RNA) that is viral into the healthy host cell, leading to rapid growth of infected cells.

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