Molecular ‘tweezer’ blocks spread of HIV, Penn study finds

     (<a href=“”>Photo</a> via ShutterStock)

    (Photo via ShutterStock)

    Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have identified a tweezer-shaped molecule that prevents HIV transmission — and might one day be used in a new protective gel.

    The compound is a candidate to treat Alzheimer’s disease because of its ability to break apart amyloid beta fibers, which clump together and cause problems in the brain.

    But similar threadlike structures exist in semen, too; they can trap virus particles and increase the likelihood of transmitting disease during sexual activity.

    “When you try to infect cells in culture with HIV, the infection is greatly stimulated if you add a natural human seminal fluid,” said Penn biochemist Jim Shorter, one of the senior authors of the new study published in the journal eLife.

    Together with collaborators in Germany, the Penn team tested the molecule in human semen and found it successfully broke apart those infection-enhancing proteins.

    Shorter said the real surprise came when the researchers realized the molecular tweezer also directly destroys HIV.

    “It’s like a double whammy,” he said. “You’re not only hitting the fibrils that promote infection by the virus, but you’re also disrupting the virus itself.”

    The potential drug also reduced the infectivity of a variety of enveloped viruses, including the hepatitis C and herpes simplex type-2 viruses. Shorter said that feature could make it more popular in the developing world because the product wouldn’t necessarily be viewed as just for those with HIV.

    The team plans to next test the molecular tweezer in mice or monkeys.

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