Researchers have found a new category of protein in coral reefs that stops the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) from entering T cells. If pharmaceutical companies are able to make necessary adaptations to include them in sexual gels and lubricants, they offer promise as a new type of barrier against the virus.
During the study, conducted by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), researchers discovered a type of protein never previously seen, according to Medical News Today. Their findings were presented at the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting held in San Diego.
The team found the new proteins while they were reviewing natural product extracts in the NCI’s repository of biological substances. The proteins, part of a class known as cnidarians, were recovered from feathery corals from the part of the ocean off Australia’s northern coast. The Smithsonian National Zoological Park reports that cnidarians are carnivorous fauna. They inhabit all depths of the sea. In addition to living off the coast of northeastern Australia, they thrive in Arctic waters and in most saltwater marine habitats.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.1 million U.S. residents have an HIV infection. Nearly 16 percent aren’t aware that they are infected.
The NCI team found that the new proteins are able to block HIV without causing the virus to become resistant to other drug therapies. This makes them a good choice for incorporation in anti-HIV microbicides. Heterosexual women would be able to use gels and lubricants with the proteins without depending on a male partner to use protection. NCI researchers believe that should the virus become resistant to the proteins, it would probably still respond to other current therapies.
When the team tested the proteins on HIV strains in the lab, the proteins proved very powerful. It was possible to block the virus using concentrations as low as a billionth of a gram and prevent it from penetrating T cells. The blocking mechanism appeared to be a binding of the cnidarians to HIV, resulting in the virus’s inability to fuse with T cell membranes. Scientists believe the mechanism is unique to cnidarian proteins.
The next step for the NCI researchers is to find better methods to manufacture these proteins in greater quantities to permit more extensive testing. Among the goals are determining whether they work with other viruses and if they produce any side effects.
All the proteins in the study resided in the NCI natural product extract repository. The specimens in the repository had origins across the globe and reside with NCI thanks to the consent of the countries where they originated. Scientists throughout the United States have access to the repository. Members of NCI team studying the proteins and HIV hope their discovery will encourage greater user of the repository.
Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and other conditions that affect the quality of life.