Upon encountering a virus, our immune system produces neutralizing antibodies, which help fight it. But the role of such antibodies during HIV-1 infection is not clear. A report in this week's Nature (Vol. 422, No. 6929, 20 March 2003, pp. 307-312) shows that neutralizing antibodies directed against HIV-1's envelope protein are found in HIV-1-infected individuals, but that the virus evolves rapidly to escape detection. George Shaw from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA, and colleagues monitored the level of an envelope gene of HIV-1 in infected individuals, and noticed that mutations cause the envelope protein gp160 to change over time. Surprisingly, the part of the protein usually recognized by antibodies, the so-called epitope, does not change. Rather, the sugar molecules that decorate the envelope protein alter - seemingly shielding off the protein from recognition by the neutralizing antibodies. An ever-evolving sugar shield may thus help HIV-1 to escape the immune system.
George M. Shaw
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(C) Nature press release.
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