December 16, 2019

The way that HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—spreads and progresses over time varies among people.

A recent study by scientists at Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) at Texas Biomedical Research Institute shows this variance may be at least partially explained by a genetic mechanism, a discovery that could open the door for more targeted treatments.

A team of scientists led by Assistant Professor Smita Kulkarni, PhD, and Mary Carrington, PhD, conducted the study, which revealed that a specific long “noncoding” RNA molecule influences a key receptor involved in HIV infection and progression. Dr. Kulkarni said that until the last decade or so, scientists thought many of these particular RNAs were “junk.” Thanks to recent developments in technology and genomics, however, the scientific community has been able to examine them further.

The team of researchers showed that the long non-coding RNA molecules impact the genes encoding an HIV co-receptor known as CCR5. Since CCR5 is critical for the HIV virus to enter the cell, its various expressions can affect the infection’s outcome. Genomic DNA from various groups, including Hispanics, African Americans and Japanese, showed that this is present across many ethnicities, which means it can likely be explained by a single functional mechanism.

“Finding functional mechanisms of the disease-associated gene regions will increase our understanding about how they regulate disease-associated genes and pathways,” Kulkarni explained. “We may be able to find selective targets for (HIV) therapy.”

Kulkarni further stated that these discoveries may have implications for the progression of other infectious diseases as well.

“There are many ways we can use the techniques we have learned through this study—what we have established in our lab,” she said. “We can apply it to many other pathogens currently being studied by scientists at Texas Biomed and at many other institutions.”

Understanding these mechanisms is just part of the equation in fighting HIV. See how other ongoing research at the NPRCs is helping purge HIV “reservoirs” from the body.

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