Going into day 3, and the only ill effect carried over from last night’s French AIDS research party is a mild ringing in the ears from ANRS director François Delfraissy’s experiments with audio feedback, while he was thanking us all for our efforts. Next time, please don’t stand so close to the speakers when you’re talking into the microphone, Professor Delfraissy!
One of this morning’s plenary talks was from Stephen Cherepanov, on the structure of the HIV integrase complex, but since this has already been covered in Viroblogy, I don’t need to say any more about it. Rather fortunately, because describing the 3-D structures of the integrase-DNA complex would have been far, far beyond my literary prowess. “Yes, well, try to imagine a couple of short tube-shaped sections, close together, but held at an angle – not parallel to one another. Those are the ends of the proviral DNA, just before strand-transfer. They’re being held in place by what looks something like a Henry Moore sculpture, and the wiggly orange bit, close to one end of short tube-shaped DNA ends – that’s the active site of the enzyme.” You see what I mean?
Anyway, later on there was a session on HIV-host cell interactions, one of which harked back to those pesky microRNAs from the other day. Carlos de Noronha (Albany Med Coll, USA) told a story that led from Vpr – one of the HIV’s small proteins – to micro RNA. Vpr has several effects on infected host cells, including cell cycle arrest (infected cells stop dividing) and inducing expression of molecules on the surface of the infected cell that prevent infected cells being killed by “Natural Killer” cells of the immune system. The way Vpr does this, apparently, is by interacting with a ubiquitin ligase complex (DECAF1-CRL4). Ubiquitin ligases stick a protein called ubiquitin onto other proteins, and this ubiquitin tag marks its victim for destruction. De Noronha’s group set out to identify what other cellular proteins are ubiquitinylated by DECAF1-CRL4, and could therefore be influenced by Vpr. Their hunt turned up Dicer, which is involved in producing miRNAs. They showed that Vpr does indeed induce DECAF1-CRL4 to tag Dicer for degradation, and that viruses deficient in Vpr replicate efficiently only when Dicer is artificially depleted. Now it’s not at all clear why destroying Dicer is useful for the virus, but in answer to a question, de Noronha suggested that infected cells may use miRNA to shut down expression of host factors necessary for HIV replication. In that case, it would be useful for HIV to block production of cellular miRNA.
Micro RNA came back again in the afternoon when Mary Carrington (NCI Frederick) presented data in press in Nature dissecting an association between a genetic polymorphism in HLA-C, and control of HIV infection. The HLA region of the genome controls, to a large extent, the immune response against infectious diseases, including viruses. It is also extremely polymorphic (that is, variable between individuals) and this polymorphism is what ensures that the human race would not be entirely wiped out if an extremely nasty, new infection were to appear. Because of the variability in the immune response between individuals, no virus can be perfectly adapted to every individual in the whole population. Variations in HLA-B genes modify the HLA-B proteins, and this alters their ability to present HIV epitopes, which in the end results in people with certain HLA-B variants (or alleles) such as HLA-B57 and B27 controlling HIV infection better.
The HLA-C polymorphism associated with control of HIV infection, however, does not alter the HLA-C protein, so until this afternoon, it has been rather mysterious how it might work. Well, to cut a long story illustrated by several slides short, it turns out that the protective HLA-C alleles have modifications in the 3′ non-coding region of the gene, and these changes occur in a microRNA (miR-148) binding site. In variants which can be targeted by miR-148, the level of HLA-C expression on the surface of cell are lower. Variants associated with better control of HIV infection “escape” from miRNA148 control, and result in higher HLA-C expression. Moral of the story – even “silent” gene polymorphisms can in fact be functional, and rather strangely, it appears that avoiding control by microRNA can be a mechanism of host defence as well as a means of virus attack.
Also, a very interesting talk from David Evans (Harvard, USA) about how different primate lentiviruses avoid being retained on the surface of the infected cell by Tetherin. One interesting point that he illustrated was that HIV-1 type M viruses are much better at escaping from Tetherin’s grip than HIV-1 type O and type N viruses. This could be one reason why HIV-1 type M viruses are more infectious, and why they, rather than the other two types of HIV-1, caused the current HIV pandemic.