Peptide could stop HIV progression

A new preventative measure developed at the U could block HIV progression in women. Biochemistry professor Michael Kay and his team of researchers have developed a way to prevent HIV from spreading and infecting cells.

“We’re primarily interested in prevention and protecting women who can’t convince their partner to wear a condom,” Kay said.

Kay and his researchers have discovered a cluster of proteins or peptides capable of blocking the primary HIV protein that allows the virus to spread and infect human cells. Peptides, like hormones and antibiotics, are made up of small proteins.

“It’s like sticking some gum into a screw hole, so the screw won’t go through and work — it stops it,” Kay said.

The project has been ongoing since Kay began his post-doctorate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He came to the U six years ago. Animal testing is now being initiated at other laboratories. Kay’s lab at the U is developing human cells and virus particles to test how effective the peptide is at blocking HIV entry.

Although the peptide “inhibitor” is still being tested, there are plans for the peptide to be used as a cream for women to apply. Even if a woman contracts HIV from her partner, she wouldn’t become infected because the virus wouldn’t be able to spread, Kay said.

Debbie Eckert, a research professor at the U, worked on a study while at MIT that identified D-peptide as a way to block HIV.

“Michael brought the project to Utah and now the peptide is 40,000 times (stronger) than any peptide we had originally,” she said.

Christopher Hill, an X-ray crystallographer and U professor, assisted in the project by studying the atomic complex of the HIV protein to see how well the peptide blocks HIV infection.

“Determining the crystal structure for this took years instead of months like it usually takes,” he said. “It was very complex.”

Samples of the peptide were also sent to Annie Heroux at the Brookhaven National Laboratory where a mile long X-ray machine helped researchers strengthen the peptide to block HIV.

Eckert has followed the research and how it has progressed since her work at MIT.

“It’s actually at that point where it could have an impact on the AIDS epidemic,” she said. “I’m so glad Michael followed through with the project and it’s at the stage it is now.”

“An HIV vaccine is the ultimate goal, but until that can happen, we want to stop HIV before it gets into the body,” Kay said.

Kay and his team have managed to block HIV 100 percent of the time by using larger doses of the peptide.

“We have to focus on keeping the costs of the potential drug low because the people who would benefit most in the developing world have limited resources,” Kay said.

The National Institutes of Health is coordinating tests to see the effects the drug has on animals.

“Our work with cells grown in labs ha(s) shown that the peptides should be nontoxic to humans and animals, but there could be unexpected variables,” Kay said.

If animal trials are successful, the peptide can be tested on a small number of humans and could be legalized as a drug.

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Jarad Reddekopp

Michael Kay grows human cells in his non-toxic BL2 lab. These cells will later be tested with viruses to assist in his research. This research is targeting the HIV virus to keep the virus from getting a foot-hold in the human body.