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HIV: A sugar shield to evade host defences

The extreme diversity of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) strains is a major obstacle to anti-AIDS vaccine elaboration or the development of new treatments against the disease. IRD scientists, working jointly with other institutes (1), used statistical methods to determine the adaptive molecular mechanisms the virus deploys to avoid neutralization by the host immune defences. This adaptive molecular evolutionary strategy, based on genetic variability, proved to be a feature common to the different HIV subtypes. The virus apparently uses the great variety of its envelope-protein receptor binding sites, which have the role of fixing large complex carbohydrate molecules in the form of glycans, to provide protection against the host's antibodies. These sugars are large structures that apparently block the way of human antibodies that would otherwise fix on to the virus, without hindering these envelope proteins in their function of attaching the virus to the host cell. These results open the way to potential ways of tackling AIDS.

In humans, the AIDS virus HIV manifests extreme genetic variability. It is particularly virulent, probably because its introduction into populations is recent (2). It has a potential for rapid evolution, at both population and individual scales, owing to a mutation rate among the highest in the living world, and to its recombination capacity. This high evolutionary potential is one of the major obstacles hindering the development of an effective vaccine. Starting from the principle that this mutation-based evolution of the virus is a response to selective pressures exerted by the host immune response (thought to be the dominant evolutionary force) , IRD researchers and their project partners (1) attempted to determine, at the molecular scale, the adaptive mechanisms at work and their comparative occurrence between the different HIV groups and subtypes. They used powerful statistical techniques (the codon-based maximum likelihood met
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Contact: Bndicte Robert
presse@paris.ird.fr
33-1-48-03-7519
Institut de Recherche Pour le Dveloppement
29-Apr-2004


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