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Cracking the HIV Code

By on October 30, 2013

A recent 2013 study that is featured on the cover of Nature, describes how researchers in the US have for the first time cracked the chemical structure of the capsid or protein shell of the human  immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The breakthrough was made possible with the help of a new “petascale” supercomputer.

Scientists have been trying for some time to crack the precise chemical structure of HIV’s cone-shaped capsid, a protein shell that protects the virus’s genetic material. The capsid is thought to be the key to virulence of HIV and has become an attractive target for new antiretroviral drug development.

As senior author of this new Nature study, Peijun Zhang, an associate professor of structural biology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, says in a statement:

“The capsid is critically important for HIV replication, so knowing its structure in detail could lead us to new drugs that can treat or prevent the infection. This approach has the potential to be a powerful alternative to our current HIV therapies, which work by targeting certain enzymes, but drug resistance is an enormous challenge due to the virus’ high mutation rate.”

Previous studies have described attempts to chip away at the capsid structure bit by bit. But it was only when they added the processing power of the new petascale Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, to the already impressive array of tools, that Zhang and colleagues were able to fathom the chemical structure of the entire capsid.


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