A new study has just revealed a previously unknown, yet essential, feature of the HIV virus. This revelation could improve how well existing treatments work and potentially save lives.

HIV is a retrovirus — meaning it has to copy its RNA genome into DNA in order to infect cells — and is surrounded by a protein shell called the capsid. It has now been found that HIV hides within the capsid while it builds DNA. Armed with the knowledge of where it hides, researchers were able to build a type of inhibitor that directly targets the capsid, so new drugs potentially could be developed based on the research.

"We used to think that the capsid came apart as soon as the virus entered a cell but now realize that the capsid protects the virus from our innate immune system. The channels we've discovered explain how the fuel for replication gets into the capsid to allow the viral genome to be made,” said senior author, Dr Leo James at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

After the team of researchers — from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and University College London — identified these capsid pores, they designed an inhibitor molecule that could block them.

"We have already designed a prototype inhibitor that directly targets the channel. We predict that this feature may be common to other viruses and will be an attractive target for new antiviral drugs, including new treatments for HIV and related viruses,” lead author, Dr David Jacques at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, said.

How can this improve HIV treatments in the future? Researchers suggest that drugs could be designed, or ones currently used in treating HIV could be improved, based on these new findings about the virus.

"This collaborative work between Leo James's laboratory at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge and Greg Towers at UCL really illustrates the value of taking an interdisciplinary approach to discovery research,” Dr Tim Cullingford, Programme Manager for Chemical Biology at the MRC, said. “The combination of atomic-level structural work with virology has enabled them to make a finding that will shape the direction of future work in this area."

Source: Jaques D, et al. HIV-1 uses dynamic capsid pores to import nucleotides and fuel encapsidated DNA synthesis. Nature 2016.