The Reporter
Issue 493, 27 October 2003
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Working for life, not just December 1


On World AIDS day (December 1) next week, Mark Harris from biochemistry and molecular biology will be doing more than wearing a red ribbon - he will be looking for a way to stop AIDS in its tracks. His recent discoveries are uncovering how the HIV virus switches off the immune response, leaving AIDS sufferers vulnerable to the infections that ultimately kill them.

Dr Harris said: “The HIV virus produces a small protein called Nef, which attacks the immune system. A drug that blocked Nef would prevent that attack, and although it wouldn’t eliminate the virus, the patient would not develop AIDS – and could live a perfectly normal life.”

Dr Harris is revealing how Nef exploits a chink in the body’s armour: a protein called CD4 sits on the surface of cells and helps these cells to recognise others within the immune system – an important aspect of an effective immune response. Nef binds to CD4 and removes it from the surface of cells, weakening the immune system and leaving the body open to attack.

The importance of Nef was first recognised when a group of HIV positive patients never developed AIDS, and were found to be infected by a strain of HIV with a defective Nef gene. Since then, despite the many research groups working on Nef, progress has been slow. The work of Dr Harris’s team will make an important contribution.

Dr Harris said: “Until now, we haven’t understood how Nef causes disease, partly because it carries out many different functions in the cell – a sort of molecular Swiss Army knife. That makes it difficult to study, but now we think we’re getting closer to understanding its role in disease – knowledge that hopefully will contribute to defeating AIDS.”


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