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!
and

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.

Steve

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.


12 March, 2008

Victoria (Australia) set to recognise gay couples

I posted this over on my Gather.com account:

Here's a sneak preview but you should really go over there and read the full article:
Over and over, governments around the world are recognising that this is not a matter of religion, virtue, tradition, and the like but rather it is a simple matter of equality, fairness, and civil rights. All around the world, foreign governments are recognizing the validity of same-sex relationships.
* * * * *
From the article:
Victoria to recognise gay couples Paul Austin and David Rood
March 13, 2008

GAY and de facto couples will be able to formally register their relationships in Victoria after the Legislative Assembly last night passed historic legislation that split the Coalition.

Liberal leader Ted Baillieu supported the Government bill, which will allow couples to record their relationships with the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriage.

Read my full post on Gather.com now!

Researchers discover gene that blocks HIV

This is the announcement we've all been waiting for.

From the article:

A team of researchers at the University of Alberta has discovered a gene that is able to block HIV, and in turn prevent the onset of AIDS.

Stephen Barr, a molecular virologist in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, says his team has identified a gene called TRIM22 that can block HIV infection in a cell culture by preventing the assembly of the virus.

"When we put this gene in cells, it prevents the assembly of the HIV virus," said Barr, a postdoctoral fellow. "This means the virus cannot get out of the cells to infect other cells, thereby blocking the spread of the virus."

Barr and his team also prevented cells from turning on TRIM22 - provoking an interesting phenomenon: the normal response of interferon, a protein that co-ordinates attacks against viral infections, became useless at blocking HIV infection.

"This means that TRIM22 is an essential part of our body's ability to fight off HIV. The results are very exciting because they show that our bodies have a gene that is capable of stopping the spread of HIV." Read the remainder of the article.
I can't believe that this story came out on 29 February 2008 and I just found it today. I guess I really have had my head in a hole in the sand. :(

The most important impact of this discovery/finding is for the future development of a vaccine against HIV. Essentially, now that scientists have identified a substance (which turns out to be a gene) that blocks HIV, they can now begin working on a way to manufacture this substance into a vaccine, or possibly a cure. I'm not really a molecular biologist or physicist so I don't know the specifics as to how this will all come about; however, I do believe one thing for certain: this discovery is the beginning of the end of the reign HIV/AIDS as a killer virus/disease.

I wonder how long it will take for the development of a vaccine now that we know what to use to make one. Anybody out there have any ideas on this?

Oh, and a great super-humongous megacongratulificaciones to the team at the University of Alberta who made this discovery, and to all those in the scientific community who are racing against the clock to combat this deadly virus and resulting disease! Woot woot woot woot woot!

11 March, 2008

New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's Hypocrisy (regarding prostitution)

Well by now the blogosphere is filled with articles and opinions and what not about the revelation of New York State Governor Elliot Spitzer being linked to a high-priced (at $5,500/hour, I would nominate this description as understatement of the year) prostitution ring that was recently busted by United States federal authorities. Take, for instance, this latest piece by The New York Times:
The idea that Gov. Eliot Spitzer — the square-jawed crusader who promised to bring ethics to Albany, the former prosecutor who chased corruption on Wall Street so ferociously that people nicknamed him Eliot Ness — was somehow involved in a prostitution scandal was too much. New Yorkers who thought they had heard everything were, for a change, dumbfounded.

They had trouble folding their minds around what law enforcement officials said was contained in a federal affidavit — that Mr. Spitzer, identified only as “Client 9,” had arranged for a high-priced prostitute to meet him in Washington on the night before Valentine’s Day.
The are reports that The New York Times, which worked diligently to break the story about New York State Governor Spitzer's connections with the ring of debauchery, tried its best to "spin the story as favourably as they could for a Democrat." However, even the New York Times article is quite scathing of Governor Spitzer's conduct. And why shouldn't it be?

Personally, I don't have a problem with prostitution (I think it should be legal and regulated and could be used as a source of revenue from "sin taxes" that can be applied thereto). And quite frankly, after the whole President Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky debacle in the 1990s, I've pretty much thought that politicians are now insulated from their "personal" actions, which they always say had been a grievous mistake, an error in judgment, a failing of their own personal morality, etc. As such, I'd long-ago given up on the notion that top law enforcement official(s) of a municipalities are automatically immune from the laws for which they have been elected to enforce?

So why am I so perturbed at this latest political scandal? The answer to this is contained in this single word: hypocrisy.

To be certain, the case of NYS Governor Spitzer is somewhat unique, and yet not so unique. But first, let's look at why it's unique, and why it has shocked us un-shockable New Yorkers:

Though his signature issue was pursuing Wall Street misdeeds, as attorney general Mr. Spitzer also had prosecuted at least two prostitution rings as head of the state’s organized crime task force.

In one such case in 2004, Mr. Spitzer spoke with revulsion and anger after announcing the arrest of 16 people for operating a high-end prostitution ring out of Staten Island.

“This was a sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multi-tiered management structure,” Mr. Spitzer said at the time. “It was, however, nothing more than a prostitution ring."

For me, I think this quote in the recent New York Times article sums it up best:

“He’s pulled a lot of people through the mud, and look what he’s done,” said Ben Clarke, who works for a technology company that counts Wall Street firms as clients. Sipping red wine at Harry’s Cafe on Hanover Square, Mr. Clarke added, “The hypocrisy is incredible.”

So you see, Attorney General, and gubernatorial candidate Spitzer periodically proselytized over and over and the evils and ills of prostitution. Why, then, would he engage in the very acts he has, for years, condemned?

As I previously mentioned, Governor Spitzer's case is unique yet, at the same time, not so unique. Governor Spitzer now finds himself in exactly the same position as such great political heroes as:

U.S. Senator Larry Craig

U.S. Congressman Ed Schrock

Washington State Representative Richard Curtis

There are probably others but I can't find them at the moment or recall who they are (I'll edit this list at some point in the future once some people I've contacted to help fill in this list get back to me).

By the way, if Governor Spitzer refuses to resign and brought to an impeachment trial (and subsequently impeached), it wouldn't be the first time in the history of New York State.

I should point out this breaking news article, which exemplifies just why this level of hypocrisy does, and should, bring one's blood to a boiling point.

While I disagree with a certain aspect of his politics, kudos to New York State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, for doing and saying the right thing and not using this moment for political advantage, which is something that most politicians wouldn't think twice about doing:
Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate Republican leader who had a fractious relationship with Mr. Spitzer, said he felt “very badly for the governor’s wife, for his children.”
For you conspiracy theorists out there: this is a plot by the conservative right-wing (a/k/a the religious right), as Governor Spitzer has recently voiced his support and advocated for same-sex marriage rights in New York State--stating that he would introduce such legislation in the near future--to discredit him and force him out of office so as to prevent such legislation from being introduced into the legislature by him.

On a personal note, it boggles my mind that this latest scandal still leaves people wondering why I'm such a raving cynic, especially with respect to U.S. Presidential Candidate/Senator Barack Obama's "Change" campaign. :p

Finally, let's all take a moment of silence out of respect for the passing of Governor Spitzer's political career...

[Updated 7:00am 11 March 2008]Think of it this way, what Spitzer did would be akin to Rudy Guliani running off and doing business with the mob. Think about it. It just makes no sense, no sense at all. And, as one of my friends told me, "He's the frikkin Governor of New York--I'm sure he could have gotten a woman, any woman, without having to pay for it? Why would he be so stupid as to think he had to pay for it?" But then, paying for something connotes a certain meaning, n'est-ce pas?