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AIDS research yields hormonal look-alike.

AIDS research yields hormonal look-alike

Antibodies against a human hormone that stimulates the immune system also inhibit test-tube replication of the virus associated with AIDS, report researchers from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Why antibodies to the hormone would work against the AIDS virus remains to be discovered, but the results suggest a new path to an AIDS vaccine, the researchers write in the May 30 SCIENCE.

The hormone target is thymosin alpha1, which promotes the activity of helper T cells, the prime victims of the AIDS virus. The researchers suspected a thymosin-AIDS connection because children with a genetic inability to produce thymosin develop an AIDS-like disease. In a computer match-up of the viral and hormone proteins, they found that about half the components along a short stretch of thymosin are identical to an inner-core AIDS protein.

They injected thymosin alpha1 into rabbits and added the resultant antibodies to a human cell line infected with the AIDS virus. "We found we could protect cells [in culture] by adding the antibody,' says Prem S. Sarin of the National Cancer Institute. The researchers are now searching for a vaccine that will stimulate humans to produce their own antibodies against the AIDS core protein.

AIDS vaccine work has focused predominantly on the proteins that surround the viral core, on the presumption that the "envelope' proteins are more exposed to the immune system. But these outer proteins vary from strain to strain of the AIDS virus, complicating the search for a single vaccine.

In contrast, the core protein--which George Washington's Allan L. Goldstein calls "the Achilles' heel of the virus'-- apparently remains stable. "We feel we have solved one of the major obstacles to vaccine development--namely, genetic drift,' says Goldstein.

For an immune reaction to occur, the core protein must be exposed to antibodies at some point. This may happen, Goldstein suggests, when the virus injects itself into the cell, or if the antibody enters infected cells, or if the core protein is in the envelope as well.

Whether the structural similarity between the virus and the hormone is simply coincidental or has a functional explanation, Sarin says, remains an open question.
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Article Details
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Author:Silberner, Joanne
Publication:Science News
Date:May 31, 1986
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