18 March 2008

More information on TRIM22, a recently discovered human gene that blocks HIV formation

I recently posted an article to my blog about a recent breakthrough in HIV research--the discovery of the TRIM22 gene in humans, and linked to it from an article on my Gather.com account. Unfortunately, a number of the responses to the post on my Gather account were somewhat negative, along the lines of "[yawn] We've heard of this before its nothing new." Take, for instance, one of these comments:
old news, this has been out and about for a year now!

Even though this has been around for a little while (as so rudely mentioned early in the comments) it will still be kept relatively quiet until the pharmaceutical companies find ways they can cash in on it.
I even had a few friends who read my blog post IM me that the cure for HIV/AIDS exists but is being blocked either by the US Government or various pharmaceutical interests.

After receiving this sort of a response to my post and the information contained therein, I went on the 'net and tried to search for a similar announcement but, try as I might, I couldn't find anything remotely similar to the announcement of 29 February, 2008 made by Dr. Barr and his research team at the University of Alberta. So I did what any curious person would do, ask Google for more information about the research, itself. In doing so, I found the paper that Dr. Stephen Barr (lead researched) authored, which was published in the Public Library of Science Pathogens journal.

The article contained contact information for Dr. Barr and, like any curious person, I sent him an e-mail:
Dear Dr. Barr:

Do you have any articles/abstracts wherein you explain, in layman's terms, how your research and recent breakthrough (which I believe to be remarkable and promising) differs from previous announcements of HIV-blocking genes? I posted an article about your recent announcement on a blog I write for and a number of people took a very "{yawn} been there, seen that, nothing new" attitude, some claiming that this research was announced five years ago (whereas, clearly, one can see that your paper was published on 29 February, 2008).

My only interest in your paper is in informing people about what I believe to be a giant leap forward in successfully developing a cure and/or vaccine against HIV/AIDS.

Thank you for your time and kind courtesies.

Truly yours,
-Peter C. Frank
Approximately 12 hours later, Dr. Barr sent a response to me, which he has subsequently given me permission to post here. So here, straight from the horse's mouth, and in layman's terms, is what Dr. Barr's research is all about, and the current and potential significance that his team's research holds in the battle against HIV/AIDS:

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your interest in my work. Some researchers out there (like me) are trying to understand how our body fights off viruses. In many cases, our bodies are able to fight off many viruses. This defense is largely due to a response called the Interferon Response. The Interferon Response is activated when our body is exposed to viruses such as HIV. When this occurs, several genes are turned on that have “virus-killing” abilities. How these “virus-killing” genes act differs greatly. Some prevent the virus entering our cells, some attack the virus soon after it enters a cell, and some prevent the virus from physically forming new virus that can leave cells. Of course, I am not sure what genes specifically your bloggers are referring too, but a couple human genes have been identified previously to attack HIV early after it enters cells. However, HIV has evolved a counter-attack against these genes, making them useless. About 5 years ago, researchers found a gene called TRIM5 from monkeys that attacks HIV when this gene is put into human cells. Humans have TRIM5 too, but HIV has evolved to counter-attack this gene, making it useless. Concerns arise about using monkey TRIM5 in gene therapy as an HIV vaccine because it is of monkey origin. If we all take a vaccine that puts monkey TRIM5 in our bodies, it may very well kill HIV, but because it is not natural to humans, it may do something else less desirable in our bodies. Researchers are currently trying to find ways to mimic the effect of monkey TRIM5 that will be a safe form of therapy.

My research, on the other hand, has identified a gene called TRIM22, that is naturally found in humans that is effective at stopping HIV infection in the lab. This gene differs from the other genes in that it attacks HIV at a different stage, when it is trying to get out of cells. TRIM22 prevents HIV from assembling (or forming) new virus. This means that new virus can’t get out of cells to infect other cells, thereby stopping the spread of virus. In the lab, it appears that HIV has not evolved to counter-attack TRIM22, unlike the other human genes reported a while ago. Obviously, it seems that TRIM22 does not seem to be functioning in HIV patients. We still have a lot more research to do in order to find out why. Because TRIM22 is of human origin, it would potentially have less toxic side-effects if it were to be used as some form of gene or drug therapy or vaccine. By identifying a new stage of the HIV lifecycle to attack by natural means (ie. stopping virus assembly), we have opened up a new avenue for research, which could lead to more effective therapy. Such therapy is still many many years away, but we have made a significant advance towards that goal.

When I hear that people have a: "{yawn} been there, seen that, nothing new" attitude, it makes me realize that the public is really not aware of what it takes to make these kind of advances. To put things into perspective a little more, if I were to find the cure for AIDS in my lab today, it would still take another 10 years just to prove that it is safe and effective for use in humans. So you can see, by finding more natural, human, ways of combating HIV, we are a lot closer to a safe, effective vaccine. I hope that this provides you with some helpful info Peter.


So there you have it. I have found Dr. Barr to be quite approachable and dedicated to his work/research, as well as an individual who is passionate about his research. I with to thank him, publicly, for responding to my inquiry in such a timely fashion, and in such detail. So if any of you still believe that Dr. Barr's research is "old news," I urge you to read the above and, if necessary, contact him via e-mail, to express your thoughts and ask any questions you may have about his groundbreaking research. I am certain that he will provide the same courtesies to you as he has to me, and explain to your satisfaction exactly why his research is such a breakthrough (simply put, this is the first HIV-blocking gene that has been discovered that exists naturally in humans and not some other species that must be synthesized for human use).

Finally, I wish Dr. Barr and his team, and all researchers out there, continued success, good luck, and good fortune in their efforts to improve the human condition. I leave you with this comment from Dr. Barr, which he sent to me in a follow-up e-mail:
When I look at others in my field and how they interact with the public to try and explain their research, I feel there is a strong disconnect, especially with those directly affected with HIV. I promised myself, being a fairly young researcher, to try and stay in touch with the public and explain ourselves and our advances as best I can. After all, it is the public’s money that we use to make these advances. Feel free to ask me any questions any time. Until then, I will be trying my hardest to develop something big.