The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has the ability to attach its DNA to the host’s immune system’s DNA and manipulate the host cells to continue its replication process. This ultimately kills the affected cells, destroying the host’s immune system along the way. Researchers had long ago discovered that the HIV protein integrase is responsible for the HIV’s cell’s ability to attach itself to a host cell’s DNA, but for over twenty years they were not able to learn how this process actually happened. New discoveries into this process have shown that new HIV therapies are possible, because they are now attempting to retarget the entry points of the initial HIV cells, and thus weaken the virus’s ability to replicate so rapidly.

Researchers at KU Leuven’s Laboratory for Molecular Virology and Gene Therapy have learned that two amino acids are responsible for the integrase’s integration of the viral DNA to the host DNA. “HIV integrase is made up of a chain of more than 200 amino acids folded into a structure,” says Jonas Demeulemeester, one of the doctoral researchers working on this project. These amino acids, which are all folded in on each other, manipulate themselves in such a way that only two of the amino acids come into direct contact with the host’s DNA, and this becomes the initial entry point of the HIV cell.

The process of how HIV links to a host cell’s DNA is similar to related animal-borne viruses. Using this model to look at the animal-borne viruses, the researchers were able to learn that by manipulating and re-targeting the amino acids that make up the integrase they can cause the HIV cells to enter the host’s DNA at variant points. They learned that some entry points are more susceptible to a rapid replication and destruction of the host cells, and at the same time there are “safer” entry points of the host’s DNA which cause for a very slow and manageable reproduction rate of the viral cells. Now possible new HIV therapies exist because of this discovery, as we can now target the individual amino acids within the viral DNA, hopefully manipulating them into extinction.