University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemist Ron Raines' proposal to the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative beat 40-to-1 funding odds and is aimed broadly at developing therapeutic agents that limit drug resistance.
The idea floated by Raines and his group involves creating a novel cytotoxin, an agent poisonous to cells, from an enzyme known as a ribonuclease whose job is to cleave RNA.
By making an inactive precursor form of the RNA-slicing enzyme, Raines says, it's possible to deliver the agent to cells where it can reside benignly until activated by a pathogen such as HIV.
In the case of HIV infection, the cloak, Raines explains, is removable only by a protein-slicing enzyme that the pathogen requires to complete its life cycle.
"As that cleavage can only occur in cells infected with the HIV-1 virus, the toxic activity of the ribonuclease will be unleashed only in infected cells," he said.
A therapy that kills only HIV-infected cells has the potential to eradicate in patients the reservoir where the virus does its dirty work.
The strategy, Raines adds, could also be used as a prophylactic, preventing the virus from getting a foothold in the cells it commandeers to make new virus particles.
The approach, according to Raines, could also be used to develop strategies for combating pathogens in addition to HIV.