Cats Could Lead the Way to an HIV Vaccine

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By Jane A Kelley

When I was a teenager, the world was just starting to become aware of AIDS. I read stories and saw photos of AIDS-infected people dying from cancers and opportunistic infections, and it was made even more frightening by the fact that there was no known cure or treatment for the disease. AIDS was a terrifying specter for me and for many teenagers who were just coming into awareness of our sexuality. It was also the subject of horrible homophobic jokes by my peers.


Around the same time, scientists discovered the feline immunodeficiency virus, which had a similarly grisly effect that I saw firsthand. One of my cats became infected with FIV, and I watched him go through the progression of his disease. I took him for his final visit to the vet when his suffering became too much to bear.

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As the years went by, treatment for AIDS and the human immunodeficiency virus that causes the disease improved, and so did the lives of people living with HIV. But nonetheless, people still became permanently disabled or died from the disease.

In the past decade or so, research on the feline immunodeficiency virus has led to some breakthroughs in the treatment of HIV, and the latest news is providing even greater hope for treatment and even a possible vaccine for the disease.

Researchers from the University of Florida and the University of California at San Francisco, have discovered that a protein in the feline immunodeficiency virus produces an immune response in the blood of patients with HIV.

How did they do it? They used T-cells -- white blood cells that are a major part of the human immune system -- from HIV-positive humans to see whether they would produce an anti-HIV activity when exposed to small regions of the FIV protein.

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The researchers are now working on developing a T cell-based vaccine for the human immunodeficiency virus that could activate an immune response against the FIV vaccine, thereby inducing the human body to produce proteins that could kill the HIV-infected cells. The magic bullet: T peptides, small pieces of protein that trigger the body's T cells to attack cells infected with HIV.

Not all T peptides work the same, though: Some HIV peptides can actually enhance HIV infection, some have no effect at all, and some can lose their effectiveness if the virus changes or mutates. Developing an HIV vaccine will involve finding the right peptides to create a consistent immune response. The feline AIDS virus peptides seem to do just that.

Why do T peptides from the feline immunodeficiency virus work on the human immunodeficiency virus? It starts with genetics. Many species of animals have their own version of an immunodeficiency virus, and each has evolved to be most effective in causing disease in that species. However, since these viruses are all related, it seems that there are peptides that have to stay exactly the same in every version of the virus in order for it to survive at all.

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Dr. Jay A. Levy, one of the study's authors, stresses that this does not mean that FIV can infect humans. Instead, he told Medical News Today, "The cat virus resembles the human virus sufficiently so that this cross-reaction can be observed."

The next step for the researchers is to see if these FIV peptides show a reaction against the simian immunodeficiency virus, the version found in monkeys. After that, they can begin clinical trials in humans.

The researchers' findings may also produce an improved FIV vaccine -- a win-win situation!

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.

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