University of Michigan researchers discovered how HIV uses a protein called Nef to hide itself in human cells and dodge the immune system. “Nef interferes with one important part of our defenses that helps our immune system recognize infected cells by displaying pieces of the infecting virus or bacteria on the cell surface,” explains Kathleen Collins, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor.
“When HIV infects one of our cells, the protein Nef binds to this helper system and alters it in such a way that the cell believes it belongs in the cellular trash bin rather than on the surface where our main defenses can see it.”
The Nef protein recruits naturally occurring proteins within our cells to aid this subversion. The scientists identified these natural proteins and developed related inhibitors that could potentially allow our immune system to function properly.
The team also discovered that Nef takes on notably different shapes and structural forms in different contexts. This lets it reveal or obscure different signals within the infected cell as needed.
Dr. Collins is presenting these results today at the Society for General Microbiology’s 162nd meeting.