A George Mason University researcher studying the HIV virus has made a promising find.

Yuntao Wu, a professor in the Department of Molecular and Microbiology, was named a “young star in science” by Genome Technology Magazine in 2007 for his HIV/AIDS research. In April he and his team of researchers published a study in The Journal of Biological Chemistry that could change the way scientists understand the infection process, and possibly guide treatment in a new direction.

HIV is a retrovirus that attacks the immune system, specifically white blood cells. The resulting condition, AIDS, has caused a pandemic that has killed over 25 million people since it was first recognized 30 years ago. What makes HIV different, and more deadly, is how successful it is at destroying a person’s natural defenses against infection, despite having lower rates of transmission than other STDs like HPV.

What they found was a protein called LIMK, or LIM domain kinase, which is present at the initial breaking of the cell wall by the HIV virus. Although another protein called cofilin allows the virus to get through the cytoskeleton, LIMK actually prompts the cell to move in a way that is crucial to the infection process.

“Think of a cell as a house,” Wu said, explaining the process. “After a virus breaks through the outer walls — a cell’s security system — it has to figure out how to turn on all the lights. The virus doesn’t want to just kill the cell; [first] it wants to use it for what it wants.” Before causing the cell to essentially self-destruct, the virus turns healthy CD4 “helper” T-cells in to factories that produce more of the virus.

Instead of using HeLa cells — immortal cancer cells — to do his research, Wu used healthy human T-cells. Although using HeLa cells would have been cheaper and easier, it was more important to the researchers to study how the virus would affect the average human.

These crucially important donations of healthy cells were made by “regular students,” Wu said.

During the experiment, the researchers used a chemical to inhibit LIMK in the cells, which lead to them being resistant to infection by the HIV virus.

While Wu stresses that much more research needs to be done, his findings present a new way to treat HIV before cells are infected, which does not exist with current treatments.