Friday, April 20, 2007

VIRIP: A new anti-HIV compound?

Welcome to this installment of The AIDS Pandemic. I’m Dave Wessner.

Could our own bodies be producing potent inhibitors of HIV? According to research published in today’s issue of Cell, the answer may be ‘Yes.’ And these interesting findings eventually may lead to the development of new anti-retroviral drugs.

Since the isolation of HIV in 1983, numerous naturally occurring human factors have been postulated to have anti-HIV properties. Today, a group of researchers in Germany have added another factor to this list. By studying hundreds of small molecules isolated from human blood, the researchers identified a short peptide, or protein fragment, that effectively blocked HIV from infecting cells. Termed Virus-Inhibitory Peptide, or VIRIP, this peptide represents a small piece of a larger protein normally found in our blood – alpha1-anti-trypsin.

To demonstrate the inhibitory effects of VIRIP, the researchers infected cell lines with HIV-1, added VIRIP to the cells, and then determined how many additional cells subsequently became infected. VIRIP decreased the infection rate in a dose-dependent manner. In other words, when higher concentrations of VIRIP were used, the effect was greater. The effect also was very specific for HIV; the peptide did not block the infectivity of other types of viruses. Interestingly, the researchers showed that if they altered the VIRIP peptide slightly, it’s inhibitory properties increased dramatically. Finally, VIRIP was equally effective against strains of HIV that were resistant to other anti-retroviral drugs, yet resistance to VIRIP was not observed.

Mechanistically, it appears that VIRIP blocks HIV infection by binding to the viral protein gp41 and preventing fusion between the viral envelope and the cell membrane. An existing drug, T20, or Fuzeon, works in a similar manner.

The path from an initial discovery like this and a marketable drug is a long and winding path, filled with potholes. Promising candidate molecules rarely become FDA-approved drugs. So, the odds are against VIRIP. But, based on this report, it’s certainly worth keeping our eye on it.

Until next time, I’m Dave Wessner.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Kiva: Using microfinancing to help people in developing countries

Paul Farmer, one of the founders of Partners in Health, describes the ‘great epi divide,’ the epidemiological divide that exists between developed countries and developing countries, between affluent neighborhoods and less well-off neighborhoods, between the haves and the have-nots. Morbidity and mortality associated with infectious diseases, Farmer notes, correlate well with economic disparities.

HIV/AIDS is no exception. Certainly, HIV can, and does, infect people of all walks of life. Increasingly, though, the HIV burden is highest among developing countries and the poor within developed countries. The reasons for this correlation are many. In economically challenged areas, medical care and treatment often are unavailable or unaffordable. In these areas, access to education may be limited. The list goes on.

One could argue, then, that improving the economic independence of people is the ultimate weapon against the spread of HIV. One group addressing the issue of economic independence in developing countries is KIVA. Kiva, Swahili for ‘agreement,’ is a non-profit organization designed to help people gain economic independence through microfinancing. Individuals can search the Kiva web site for people in Africa, central Asia, eastern Europe, and other parts of the world, who have great ideas, but need some initial capital. Through Kiva, one can make small, interest-free loans to these individuals. In some cases, a few hundred dollars may be all that a person needs to open a small bakery or expand a pottery shop.

The loans aren’t guaranteed; as a donor, you may never be repaid. But the results could be transformative. A little seed money may be all a person needs to become self-sufficient and cross the great epi divide.

Find out more about Kiva and help someone make their dreams a reality.

Until next time, I’m Dave Wessner.