Coral reefs provide potent new anti-HIV proteins

Discovery raises hope for new methods to prevent the spread of HIV

Researchers have discovered a new class of proteins capable of blocking the HIV virus from penetrating T-cells, raising hope that the proteins could be adapted for use in gels or sexual lubricants to provide a potent barrier against HIV infection.

The proteins, called cnidarins, were found in a feathery coral collected in waters off Australia’s northern coast. Researchers zeroed in on the proteins after screening thousands of natural product extracts in a biorepository maintained by the National Cancer Institute. “It’s always thrilling when you find a brand-new protein that nobody else has ever seen before,” said senior investigator Barry O’Keefe, Ph.D., deputy chief of the Molecular Targets Laboratory at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research. “And the fact that this protein appears to block HIV infection—and to do it in a completely new way—makes this truly exciting.”

In the global fight against AIDS, there is a pressing need for anti-HIV microbicides that women can apply to block HIV infection without relying on a man’s willingness to use a condom. Koreen Ramessar, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Cancer Institute and a member of the research team, said cnidarins could be ideally suited for use in such a product because the proteins block HIV transmission without encouraging the virus to become resistant to other HIV drugs.

“When developing new drugs, we’re always concerned about the possibility of undermining existing successful treatments by encouraging drug resistance in the virus,” said O’Keefe. “But even if the virus became resistant to these proteins, it would likely still be sensitive to all of the therapeutic options that are currently available.”

The research team identified and purified the cnidarin proteins, then tested their activity against laboratory strains of HIV. The proteins proved astonishingly potent, capable of blocking HIV at concentrations of a billionth of a gram by preventing the first step in HIV transmission, in which the virus must enter a type of immune cell known as the T-cell.

“We found that cnidarins bind to the virus and prevent it from fusing with the T-cell membrane,” said Ramessar. “This is completely different from what we’ve seen with other proteins, so we think the cnidarin proteins have a unique mechanism of action.”

The next step is to refine methods for generating cnidarins in larger quantities so the proteins can be tested further to identify potential side effects or activity against other viruses. “Making more of it is a big key,” said O’Keefe. “You can’t strip the Earth of this coral trying to harvest this protein, so our focus now is on finding ways to produce more of it so we can proceed with preclinical testing.”

The scientists discovered cnidarins while screening for proteins, a largely understudied component of natural product extracts found in the National Cancer Institute’s extract repository. The institute maintains a large collection of natural specimens gathered from around the world under agreements with their countries of origin. The specimens are available to researchers across the United States.

“The natural products extract repository is a national treasure,” said O’Keefe. “You never know what you might find. Hopefully, discoveries like this will encourage more investigators to use this resource to identify extracts with activity against infectious disease.”

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53 thoughts on “Coral reefs provide potent new anti-HIV proteins”

  1. The question of whether or not the cure for HIV/AIDS will be discovered is yet even closer to getting a “Yes!” for a reply. Such developments are very inspiring to all of us. Knowing the agony being accompanied by HIV/AIDS and other such diseases, we should support such research but we shouldn’t forget that prevention is better than cure.

  2. Yet another reason why we need conserve our reefs and our oceans.

    HIV Aids is probably the disease responsible for the most deaths in South Africa. Unfortunately no cure has been found yet. The news that a coral may contain a protein to cure HIV is good news indeed. Just think of the money the government would be able to save and the lives that would be enriched and prolonged with this potential new cure.

    But I fear for our coral reefs now as pharmaceutical companies may start pillaging reefs to find this newly discovered protein. Sea life is already on the brink of collapse, and cannot sustain any more pressure from humans. I do hope that mankind will start to realise the importance of our oceans.

  3. It is always thrilling to discover new forms of treatment and medication, however there are always socio-economic,environmental and sometimes ethical problems regarding the field of biomedicine. Because HIV is such a prominent disease, I think that the likelihood of funding will be great. Because HIV is also a very advanced disease, I think that it is important to discover new ways of treating it.

    However a major concern would be sustainability if this coral is to be harvested for research and pharmaceutical production. Not many people are aware of the fact that a large number of sea organisms are endangered or destroyed. I think that it is better to continue other treatments that do work before resorting to this newly discovered one. If a plan can be made to harvest the coral sustainably there will be no problem.

    A field that has always interested me is Ethno-Botany. It involves using plants that are indigeneous to the land. These plants can be used for medicinal and healing purposes in a way in which does not harm the environment. I think that this is a particularly important aspect of the biomedical field, because if we work with what we have, we will not destroy the Earth.

  4. Third world countries such as South Africa have high numbers of people who suffer at the hands of HIV. It’s a disease feared by all as it has always known to be incurable but this article shows that there is hope and that research to find a cure can result into working treatments. We might not yet have found this cure but preventing this virus by using the protein found in coral is a good start to ending the suffering that HIV has caused.
    There is one thing that concerns me. If people are to be treated with the coral protein what would become of the beautiful habitats that the corals form? Would this prevention of HIV cause the destruction of our fragile coral reefs and the organisms that call them home?
    If this treatment with this protein is produced many things have to be considered such as the influence on the environment.

  5. Zimasa , your concern is genuine because if the coral reef does prove to provide a cure our world may not change instantly. But if you look at the bigger picture future generations will be positively affected. Prevention of HIV will mean that countries will have a stronger work force which will greatly affect the economy.The quantity of Healthy Births will increase meaning a greater number off young people who will graduate. So if you think about it HIV does greatly affect our lives and curing it will greatly impact our world

  6. It is such a relief to know that new methods of treatment for HIV are being discoveredn as the existing treatments, although are successful, are highly expensive and many sufferers can not afford such costs. One can only hope that this new nethod, which makes use of these Cnidarins, will be reasonably priced and will not destroy the natural coral reefs. This potential reef destruction will be of much concern to environemntal activists as the rate at which coral reefs are being killed due to oceanic pollution is remarkably high. I believe that even if this new drug will not be viable, it will definetly be the first step to the discovery and production of new and alternative drugs which can combat HIV.

  7. This is very exciting news that their might be a cure in the midst for HIV. The HIV virus has killed millions since its existence, leaving many children parent-less. This is extremely important for South Africa as this country have the highest HIV population in the world. There needs to be away the the coral reefs can be conserved as well as the HIV cure to be mass produced as it is needed all over the world. This is due to the fact that if the coral reefs are depleted, this ocean life will begin to decline and it will have a chain effect on all of the ecosystems. This discovery just shows that nothing is impossible and that anything can be done if people are dedicated enough to do it.

  8. This blog post grabbed my full attention.
    To inhabitants of South-Africa, this is a big and astonishing step in the right direction, because we see the implications of HIV/AIDS on a daily basis, as South-Africa’s HIV/AIDS rate is one of the highest in the world.

    The first step of infection of the HIV virus, is the penetration of T-cells in the human body. Thus, the discovery of this protein, that blocks the virus from even penetrating the T-cells in the body, might be one of the key discoveries that are needed to understand and prevent the spread of the HIV virus worldwide.
    It is needed to find a way to distribute big amounts of this protein, without harvesting or destroying the coral reefs. As a SCUBA diver, I have witnessed the effects that even the touch or removal of a small piece of coral has on a reef, deteriorating the entire reef. Therefore, I am glad to see that the researchers are focusing on finding new ways to duplicate and produce this protein, without causing harm to the coral reefs.

    I truly look forward to see how the research progresses and what other natural substances are found that can potentially help in preventing or even curing other diseases.

  9. As excited as I am to hear about this discovery especially coming from South Africa, I can’t but help express my concern about the already disappearing and “endangered” coral reefs of this Earth. How do we further this research without endangering the fragile coral reefs?

  10. HIV is a prominent health concern in South Africa. In fact, South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rate than any other country. This remarkable discovery of proteins, found in coral, that are capable of blocking the HIV virus from penetrating T-cells can save millions of lives. Although the discovery of these proteins is truly outstanding, the extraction of these proteins may be detrimental to the environment. I believe that it is our responsibility to preserve our environment and its inhabitants.Yes, we have a responsibility to humans first but if we destroy our coral reefs through the constant extraction of the cnidarin protein we will destroy it and many other aquatic life will go with it and this will affect us in the long run. Preservation of the environment should remain top priority no matter how great the discovery.

  11. This is astonishing, to think that coral can be the leading cure for such a widespread, fatal disease. I look forward to the progression of this research!

    As a SCUBA diver I have personally witnessed how coral reefs have deteriorated over time. I agree to a great extent that the main focus of this research should be on how to establish mass production of this protein without diminishing the coral reefs that provides it. I feel that this research also obtains greater potential which could determine ways in which we can lessen the harmful affect humans have on these reefs and save them from an ever increasing rate of depletion.
    This research has my full support and I will continue to review articles published related to this topic in the near future.

  12. Each advance in medicine or preventative measure against HIV/AIDS is always exciting. Unfortunately many trails have failed to provide a cure against this cunning virus that has claimed many lives and left countless living in fear or struggling to survive the horrible impact it makes on all those surrounding it. I am hopeful that every new discovery such as the cnidarin proteins will bring changes like the ART (antiretroviral) medication that is currently provided to patients. One of the current drugs being given to the patients in South Africa works on the same principle. Entry Inhibitors, which is only one of the six major drugs used to treat HIV, interfere with the virus’ ability to bind to receptors on the outer surface of the cell it tries to enter. When receptor binding fails, HIV cannot infect the cell. One thing that does bring to question the effect that the cnidarin protein will have is whether it will be effective on its own, as the previously mentioned ARTs is recommended to be taken in combination with each other to prevent strains of HIV from becoming resistant to a type of antiretroviral drug. This approach is called HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy) and is currently used in South Africa. From my understanding it seems that the cnidarin protein may be used more as a topical treatment and the suggestion giving the woman more control serves as a reminder of the gap in the gender fairness and basic human rights we all should have.

  13. This discovery demonstrates the profound possibilities that exist in the world – we can never assume that we have discovered everything. Cnidarins do not only represent the new proteins or biological substances that can be discovered but new methods of preventing and treating disease that are possible. Despite the exciting advancements that can be made with findings such as this one, it becomes very important to consider the ethical implications. I believe that no matter what the discovery, preservation of the environment should remain top priority. Humanity is overpopulating the Earth and taking advantage of its natural resources. Coral reefs are already in a precarious position due to our actions and while these researchers are determined to find a way of artificially producing the protein, other people may not have qualms with exploiting the corals on which they are found. Life is sustained through a flow of processes from so-called ‘lower’ organisms through to humans and great care must be taken with preserving organisms we ultimately rely on for survival.

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