The precise mechanism HIV uses to kill human immune cells, long elusive, has been discovered by researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The scientists published their findings in the journal Nature, describing how HIV uses a natural cellular enzyme to instruct the cell to die.  

When HIV is in the process of inserting its genes into the DNA of CD4 immune cells, this “integration” process activates a cellular enzyme known as DNA-dependent protein kinase (DNA-PK). Under ordinary circumstances DNA-PK works to repair breaks in DNA strands. But as HIV snips cellular DNA chains and integrates its own genes, DNA-PK’s role becomes destructive: It sends a signal that causes the CD4 cell’s death.

NIAID scientists hypothesize that treating HIV-positive people with drugs that fight the earlier steps of HIV’s lifecycle, leading up to and also including this point of activation of DNA-PK, could both prevent the virus from replicating and may improve the survival of CD4s and immune function. These findings may also aid in the quest to better understand how the HIV reservoir is formed and how these sources of persistent infection could be drained.

To read the NIAID release, click here.

To read the study abstract, click here.