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Wistar Scientists Discover Sugar Molecule on HIV-infected Cell That Plays a Role in Evading Immune System

November 18, 2021

All cells have an outer layer of sugar molecules – like the candy coating on an M&M. Now a new study by Wistar scientists shows how these sugars play a key role in helping HIV cells evade the immune system. The study also shows how this mechanism can be disabled.

The findings, published in PLOS Pathogens, could lead to new treatments that don’t just suppress HIV-infected cells, but kill them. That would be a key step toward finally curing HIV.

Wistar’s Mohamed Abdel-Mohsen, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, and his team looked at a type of sugar found on the surface of HIV cells called sialic acid. These sugars can trigger inhibitors on disease-fighting “killer” immune cells, shutting them down before they attack.

“We thought, ‘is it possible that these HIV-infected cells are covering themselves with these sugars to evade immune surveillance?” said Abdel-Mohsen.

The researchers used an enzyme that removed the sialic acid. This caused the immune cells to attack and destroy the HIV.

“The killer cells become a super killer for the HIV-infected cells,” he said.

Current treatments can reduce HIV to undetectable levels, but they can’t eradicate it entirely. The disease typically returns quickly when treatment stops.

Recent HIV research has focused on a “shock and kill” approach. This involves “shocking” the virus out of latency so it can be detected, then somehow destroying it.

“They have the shock, but they don’t have the kill,” Abdel-Mohsen said. “Our method actually increases the susceptibility of HIV-infected cells to killing, which is one of the top unmet needs in the HIV field.”