Researchers in the School of Medicine are making progress in the understanding and treatment of two diseases caused by abnormalities in the human antiviral pathway: HIV and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 40,000 people will be infected with HIV this year in the United States alone. The virus’ rapid mutation rate allows it to resist many drug therapies, making it impossible for a vaccine to guard the body against the spread of an infection.
But the research team, headed by Dr. Robert
J. Suhadolnik, a professor of biochemistry in the School of Medicine, is developing a way to immunize against the spread of HIV through the use of gene therapy.
After 20 years of researching the intracellular immunization approach to inhibit HIV, Suhadolnik’s six-member team was recently awarded a $1 million research grant by the National Institutes of Health to continue its work.
“We have shown now that we can protect the cell from HIV infection in vitro, in the laboratory,” Suhadolnik said. Gene therapy immunization, as opposed to vaccines, introduces an antiviral pathway into a patient’s genes. The gene replicates and becomes incorporated into the patient’s system.
When the HIV virus is introduced to the body, the gene becomes active and kills the virus.
“The HIV virus has developed ways to counteract the natural antiviral pathways,” said Suhadolnik, adding that this new therapy could stop the spread of HIV because the delivery of antiviral genes to cells would restore the antiviral defense pathways.
“Gene therapy is extremely interesting because we’re using the body’s own immune system to combat the virus without outside chemicals or agents,” said Sean Roberts, a graduate student in the School of Medicine and a member of the research team. “It’s important towards finding a cure. Our primary goal is to find a cure.”
Suhadolnik said the earlier antiviral construct had shortcomings because there was a chance that the modified cell could contain infectious particles.
“Now we have a self inactivating vector that we can put the antiviral pathway in by way of gene therapy, and the target cells get activated when the virus comes along,” said Suhadolnik.
He also explained that, like a vaccination, the particles would be inactive until infection was introduced.
“When you get vaccinated, you don’t know that those antibodies are present, but when an infectious particle comes in the body, then the antibodies are made and the disease is wiped out,” Suhadolnik said.
Gene therapy has also been successful in curing other immune deficiency diseases, such as Severe Combined Immunodeficiency or “Bubble Boy” disease, which was once considered a fatal condition.The study of antiviral pathways has been the center of Suhadolnik’s research program and is also applied to the team’s research on CFS, said Nancy Reichenbach, an associate scientist in the School of Medicine and a member
of the research team.
According to Suhadolnik, the cause of CFS is unknown and can occur suddenly with flu-like symptoms and debilitating fatigue.
The illness, which was once believed to be a psychological disorder connected to depression, is common in women. But Suhadolnik and his research team have found that CFS is not a clinical depression disease, but rather caused by a defect in the antiviral defense pathway.
While HIV turns off the human antiviral defense mechanism, CFS is a disorder caused when the antiviral pathway is working too hard, making the patient exhausted.
“Initially we reported that the antiviral pathway was abnormal in patients diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” Suhadolnik said. “In subsequent studies, we reported the appearance of an abnormal protein in the blood cells of the patients diagnosed with CFS.
“In essence, what we showed was the appearance of a new protein.”
In addition to the grant for their HIV research, Suhadolnik and his team were also granted a U.S. patent for their research and discovery of diagnosis for CFS.
Vicky Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.