Portuguese researchers win major prize for new HIV discovery

A TEAM of medical researchers from the University of Lisbon’s Science Faculty, who carried out groundbreaking research work on the HIV retrovirus that can cause Aids, have been awarded the prestigious Champalimaud Prize.

The biochemists have discovered how a particular molecule can prevent the HIV virus from entering immune system white cells, known as T helper cells, which form part of the blood’s defence system in fighting infection.

Most healthy people have between 750 to 1,250 of these white T helper cells per milligram of blood. But when the HIV virus attacks these infection-fighting cells, they fall below 200 per milligram of blood, meaning the patient is at risk of being unable to fight off normally rare opportunistic infections, such as pneumonias and cancers.

According to project co-ordinator Miguel Castanho, professor at the Faculty of Sciences, the study means that drug companies will now be able to work on new, more effective treatments. “We already knew of the existence of a molecule called T-1249 that could stop the HIV virus from entering immune cells, but we didn’t know how it worked,” he explained. We discovered that the molecule linked onto the outer molecular membrane of these cells, which is normally used as a platform for the HIV to gain entry.”

In order to see the molecular mechanism at work, they had to use specially developed optical equipment, which was sensitive enough to react to alterations in light intensity and energy caused when molecules inter-react.

The project, first published in 2004 in the American Chemical Society Journal, has earned the team the Champalimaud Prize, which means they will receive 75,000 euros.