Biology Question #8664

Joshi, a 18 year old male from Pune, India asks on December 31, 2011,

During Biology study, an idea clicked in my head about AIDS. We say that HIV virus cannot be destroyed by drugs, and the vaccine has no effect. On Wikipedia I saw diagrams of the internal structure of the HIV virus and its divisions etc. So it tends my mind to say by using restriction endonucleases, scientists can make genetical changes in the virus HIV. The idea in my mind is to use the HIV virus against itself. Why can't HIV virus be our antibody? Again I make one assumption, that if I am human I have genes representing me as human, i.e the gene says: that particular being is human. If same is the case with HIV virus, then can we change that particular gene? Can the gene representing virus as virus be replaced by gene representing human as human? And the factor which differentiates somatic cells from antobodies be introduced in that HIV virus? If such thing is possible then HIV virus is of my body, call it HIV1, and it will fight for me against every foreign body. And if any HIV virus enters my body, HIV1 will fight against foreign HIV virus. The same that happens when a tiger grows up in a dog family fights with forest tigers. I assume that HIV1 attacks HIV virus with equal intensity. Possibly my idea is total rubbish, but the purpose of this question is to understand the genetics and to see if this can work.

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The answer

Jamie Scott answered on January 2, 2012

It appears the questioner wants to know if HIV can be genetically altered to attack other "foreign" HIV viruses and to protect the body. My answer is: probably not.

HIV is a highly mutable (changeable) virus whose existence depends upon its ability to survive and replicate. If it were altered to perform other functions it would be at the expense of this primary function, so, because of it's mutability it would eventually drop or lose these abilities and become genetically just like every other HIV.

That is why HIV vaccinologists focus on using parts of the virus to stimulate the human immune response to recognize the presence of the virus early in infection when few viruses are replicating. It is thought that if the virus can be recognized at that point then it can be stopped. However the problem is that the virus has so many variant forms that the immune system cannot be "educated" to recognize them all, so that is why a vaccine is so difficult to develop.  

These days, to solve the HIV/AIDS problem, the best thing to do is to find everyone who is infected and treat them with antiviral drugs that will suppress viral loads. That in turn will reduce the ability of an HIV+ person to infect another person. It is felt that if everyone who is infected (or at least the majority) is treated, then viral transmission could be prevented, and the epidemic could be stopped. That is how we could stop HIV with the tools we already have.

[Editor: much work is already being done on HIV vaccines. Here's the Wikipedia entry on HIV Vaccines.]

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