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Catalan researchers discover the molecule enabling HIV/AIDS propagation within the body

This world important discovery should open new paths to develop new drugs and to ultimately find a vaccine against HIV/AIDS. The finding has been published in the international journal PLoS Biology. The study has been funded by the Spanish Government, the Catalan Government, La Caixa savings bank, Barcelona’s Hospital Clínic and Esteve Labs.

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26 April 2012 12:30 AM

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ACN / María Belmez

Barcelona (ACN).- Scientists from Barcelona-based \u2018Institut d\u2019Investigació de la Sida IrsiCaixa\u2019 (IrsiCaixa Research Institute on HIV/AIDS) have found the molecule responsible for HIV\u2019s propagation within the human body. The finding was published on Tuesday in the international journal PLoS Biology. It is a considerable discovery that should open new paths to develop new drugs directly attacking this molecule and thus avoiding the virus\u2019 propagation. The researcher and coordinator of the scientific study, Javier Martínez-Picado, explained that the molecule discovered, called ganglioside, allows the virus\u2019 entrance into the immune system\u2019s dendritic cells; a process that is being repeated and provokes the virus\u2019 dissemination. IrsiCaixa Institute is partially funded by La Caixa\u2019s Foundation, the social work foundation of the Catalan savings bank La Caixa, which owns CaixaBank, Spain\u2019s largest bank. The Spanish Government, the Catalan Government, Barcelona\u2019s Hospital Clínic and Esteve Labs have also funded the study. This discovery adds to the results achieved by biomedicine research carried out in Catalonia, and in particular in Barcelona.IrsiCaixa\u2019 Director, Bonaventura Clotet, criticised the Spanish Government\u2019s budget cuts in scientific research. \u201CThis level of scientific research has not been achieved in two days, but it can be dismantled in two days\u201D. Clotet added that budget cuts should \u201Cnever\u201D affect scientific research, as it is counterproductive since R&D \u201Cwill help us to leave the crisis behind\u201D.


The human body, in front of any microorganism activates the dendritic cells. They are in charge of capturing the alien organism, cut them into pieces and transport them to the lymph nodes, the centres controlling the immune system. There, they will contact lymphocytes that will develop an immune response. In the HIV/AIDS case, this does not happen, as dendritic cells cannot cut HIV viruses into pieces. On the contrary, the virus uses the cell for its own profit. It remains inside and uses the cell to destroy the immune system.

Scientists from IrsiCaxa have discovered which is the molecule that allows the virus to match with dendritic cells, and from this point, to disseminate throughout the entire body. This process is called \u2018Trojan Horse\u2019. The Catalan team of researchers has found that propagation between cells only happens when there are gangliosides present, which enable the virus\u2019 propagation from one cell to another and thus its dissemination throughout the human organism. This sort of molecule is found in high concentration in nerve cell membranes and, in a minor concentration, in the rest of the cells\u2019 membranes.

A drug targetting gangliosides

The next step on which the researchers are already working is to develop a drug that would directly act against the found molecule, the ganglioside. If gangliosides were eliminated, dendritic cells would no longer capture HIV viruses and the propagation process would be stopped. Studies to obtain this drug started 3 months ago, but Martínez-Picado warned that it is a long-term work, which could be achieved in 15 years.

Martínez-Picado reminded that, until the current moment, the antiretroviral treatments allow to prolong and increase life quality of people with HIV/AIDS but the illness is never cured. Furthermore, the treatment is highly toxic and very expensive. The objective is to obtain a new family of drugs that will avoid the virus\u2019 dissemination. Furthermore, in the long-term, antiretroviral treatments generate resistance, and this is another aspect to improve.

Towards a vaccine against HIV

Another of the positive aspects of the discovery is that it opens new paths to obtain a vaccine against HIV. Martínez-Picado explained that the ganglioside molecule could also enable to transport the antigens that have to activate the immune system directly to the dendritic cells. In colloquial terms, he said the discovered molecule could be useful to \u201Callow the drug to arrive where necessary\u201D in order to make the immune system react. The ganglioside would therefore be used as \u201Cvehicles\u201D to introduce antigens through a vaccine to eradicate the virus. 

The study has been funded by the Spanish National Plan for Research, Development and Innovation (Plan I+D+i) and the Research and Development Programme to develop a vaccine against HIV/AIDS Hivacat. This last programme is developed through a public-private consortium in which La Caixa\u2019s Foundation, the Catalan Government, Barcelona\u2019s Hospital Clínic and Esteve Labs participate.

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  • Martínez-Picado (left) and Clotet (right) presenting the study (by M. Bélmez)

  • Martínez-Picado (left) and Clotet (right) presenting the study (by M. Bélmez)