HIV/Host Interaction Elucidated

Viruses are masters of disguise when it comes to slipping past host-mediated defenses.

By | January 17, 2005


Courtesy of Michael Malim

During viral assembly, APOBEC proteins(orange) are packaged into progeny viral particles and are transferred to target cells. Here, viral RNA(red) is first copied into viral DNA(blue) by reverse transcriptase. Minus strand DNA(light blue) is the substrate for cytidine deamination which results in the appearance of uridine in the DNA. This results in guanosine-to-adenosine hypermutation of viral plus stranded DNA (dark blue).

Viruses are masters of disguise when it comes to slipping past host-mediated defenses. But one disguise in particular, which HIV uses, appears a particularly vulnerable target that renders the virus harmless in some cells. Virion infectivity protein (Vif), found in primate and human immunodeficiency viruses such as HIV-1, is required during the late stages of virus production for replication and establishing infection in vivo. It promotes infection by suppressing an innate cellular defense mechanism in human T lymphocytes.

This issue's Hot Papers identified and subsequently described this defense mechanism, a cytidine deaminase called APOBEC3G. The work has resulted in a drug target that allows cells to not only inhibit HIV, but also completely prevent its infectivity through mutation, essentially killing it. Further work has begun to show how HIV-1 blocks APOBEC3G's effects, and to implicate the interaction in halting other viruses.

Many describe this issue's first Hot Paper by Michael Malim's group at Guy's, King's, and St. Thomas' School of Medicine, King's College London, as the breakthrough paper describing the innate cellular defense gene.1 "That set the stage now for massive efforts by a number of groups," says Mario Stevenson at the University of Massachusetts, Worchester.

The other three hot papers in this issue were published subsequently by independent groups led by Malim,2 Didier Trono of the University of Geneva,3 and Hui Zhang and Roger Pomerantz at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia.4 The findings, which appeared at the same time, described how the gene's product, APOBEC3G, disrupts HIV-1 infectivity. John Moore at Cornell University credits Malim's work for opening up an entirely new area of HIV research. "There's now a lot of attention on innate intracellular factors that help the cell ward off viral infection." Says Zhang: "The field is very crowded, now."


Data derived from the Science Watch/Hot Papers database and the Web of Science (Thomson ISI) show that Hot Papers are cited 50 to 100 times more often than the average paper of the same type and age.

“Isolation of a human gene that inhibits HIV-1 infection and is suppressed by the viral Vif protein,” Sheehy AM, Nature , 2002 Vol 418, 646-50 (Cited 139 times) (HistCite Analysis)“DNA deamination mediates innate immunity to retroviral infection,” Harris RS, Cell , 2003 Vol 113, 803-9 (Cited 90 times) (HistCite Analysis)“Broad antiretroviral defense by human APOBEC3G through lethal editing of nascent reverse transcripts,” Mangeat B, Nature , 2003 Vol 424, 99-103 (Cited 100 times) (HistCite Analysis)“The cytidine deaminase CEM15 induces hypermutation in newly synthesized HIV-1 DNA,” Zhang H, Nature , 2003 Vol 424, 94-8 (Cited 90 times) (HistCite Analysis)

Two reports in 1998 by Malim's group5 and David Kabat's group at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland6 were the first to describe an anti-HIV cellular phenotype, explains Malim. "We and Kabat's group had shown [that] the reason Vif was essential was most likely because it inhibited a natural antiviral mechanism that was in human cells," he says.

A puzzling feature of HIV infection lay in the susceptibility of some cells, but not others, to HIV propagation. Without Vif, the HIV virus is rendered noninfectious in non-permissive human T lymphocytes (the main target for HIV-1). Permissive cell types, on the other hand, support production of HIV virus even without Vif. This observation, says Malim, led to a model proposing that nonpermissive cells possess an antiviral mechanism normally suppressed by Vif.

Ann Sheehy, a postdoctoral fellow, set out to find that mechanism. "We devised a strategy to identify what those genes might be, based on differential expression and screening," says Malim. They selected two closely related cell lines, whose primary difference was that Vif was required for HIV infection in one line but not the other. They sifted through candidates until they came upon a protein that, when expressed, could inhibit the replication of Vif-deficient HIV-I. "The clincher experiment was to take different cell lines and infect with δvif," says Jim Hoxie, a virologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Permissive cells could make the virus just fine. "But if you give [the cell] this gene, now you could shut the door and prevent that cell from making virus," he explains. They called the gene CEM15 after the human T-cell line, CEM, and the fifteenth clone screened.

Not only did they identify the CEM15 protein as the human cell target, but they also were the first to reveal that CEM15 bore more than a passing resemblance to mRNA-editing enzymes called cytosine deaminases, which convert cytidines to uridines and are known as APOBECs. The CEM15 protein would subsequently become known as APOBEC3G.

"Vif is one example of how, in humans, a virus got past our molecular defense mechanisms," explains Pomerantz. As it turns out, the permissive cells have lost their expression of APOBEC3G, accounting for their ability to support the production of infectious virus, regardless of whether Vif is present.

A year later, in 2003, the three groups described how APOBEC3G destroys HIV replication through hypermutation of the viral genome. Robert Doms, a virologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says the effects are extensive. "The virus is structurally wild type. It looks and smells like normal HIV, but it peters out over time because it has been hobbled by all of these mutations ... when added to cells it would not establish a productive infection."

The impact of these papers, says Trono, was this realization that cellular mechanisms are in place that exist to gum up the works of invading viruses, effectively protecting us against infection via this previously unidentified mechanism.

Wes Sundquist at the University of Utah writes via E-mail: "The series of papers from the Malim, Zhang/Pomerantz, and Trono labs explained these observations beautifully by demonstrating that cells possess an innate antiviral defense mechanism that can actually act to 'recode' retroviral genomes as they are being reverse-transcribed."



Courtesy of Michael Malim

Vif (green) binds to APOBEC3G or APOBEC3F (orange) and bridges an interaction with a cullin5 SCF-like E3 ubiquitin ligase complex. This results in polyubiquitination of APOBEC proteins and subsequent proteolytic degradation by the proteasome.

Subsequent studies now reveal how Vif circumvents this host defense mechanism. The mechanism involves Vif binding to APOBEC3G, sending the latter to the protein scrap yard, the proteasome.78 "HIV can replicate in humans because its countermeasure, [Vif], gets APOBEC3G out of the way. Vif interacts with APOBEC3G and promotes its degradation," says Stevenson.

According to Doms, key issues remain unsolved: elucidating the normal function of APOBEC3G and its role in the innate immune system, and whether other viruses might be subject to this genetic regulation. Zhang says much remains to be done. "In vitro, you can't get Vif and APOBEC3G to bind." Though he suggests that RNA "may be the middleman," Zhang says his group's major goal is to learn how Vif binds to APOBEC3G and triggers degradation.

Trono and colleagues recently showed that APOBEC3G is the reason why 95% of individuals infected with hepatitis B virus manage to escape chronic infection with the virus.9 Furthermore, Joe Sodroski and colleagues at Harvard University recently described another cellular defense factor, called TRIM5α, which acts as a negative cofactor for simian and human immunodeficiency viruses.10 "There are likelyothers," says Stevenson.

Some are investigating the therapeutic potential of such interactions. "We're trying to build a vaccine, but cells have their own factors that are more potent than anything the immune system can throw at viruses," says Stevenson. Such an approach could tip the balance in favor of the cellular defense mechanisms by blocking mechanisms such as Vif, thereby allowing cellular cofactors tomanifest their activity and block the activity of the virus, he explains.

Unlike existing anti-HIV therapies that are aimed at envelope proteins and enzymes, no drug is yet available that targets a regulatory gene, says Pomerantz. But he adds, Vif could be an attractive target: "When you knock out Vif you have a dead virus."

Identifying such a crucial virus-host interaction raises the possibility of new therapeutic strategies, not only for HIV but also against other viruses as well. "Once you know how something works, now you can start talking about intervention, and that means drugs,"says Hoxie. "It's as elegant as it gets in science, to see something like this."


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