A team of researchers based at the University of Missouri-Columbia has succeeded in modeling capsid proteins in the HIV genome, which may lead to new drugs to help treat the virus. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is the disease that leads to AIDS, or the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. About 35 million people around the globe live with HIV, and its rapidly changing nature makes fighting it very difficult.

As it turns out, part of the reason HIV is so hard to treat is that within the virus are capsid proteins, which act kind of like shells to protect the genome while the virus reproduces. Until now, we have only been able to model mutated versions of these proteins, but the team, led by Professor Stefan Sarafianos and researcher Karen Kirby, have used crystalline x-ray technology to develop a model of a normal capsid protein.

What they found was that the proteins protect the genome while it’s reproducing, but if that protein is too stable, its “cargo” is never released. On the other hand, if the protein is too unstable, the cargo isn’t protected and it tips off the body’s immune system, which creates viral antibodies to fight it. So the virus needs the proteins to be “just right,” and that’s what the team managed to model.

The team was given a $2.28 million grant to continue their work over the next five years and, hopefully, develop medicine using this new knowledge. They found that a number of water molecules are involved in keeping the protein just stable enough, and by dehydrating those molecules, they could weaken the protein. With further research, maybe the team can figure out a reliable way to modify the capsid proteins of HIV, and thereby prevent it from reproducing, or allow the body’s immune system to fight it off on its own.