The discovery of an obscure human gene that acts as a switch to stop the HIV virus from spreading throughout the body has been hailed as the most significant breakthrough for HIV research in years.

A research team headed by Michael Malim at King’s Col-lege in London announced the discovery of the CEM 15 gene last week and said it is responsible for impeding the HIV virus’s escape from the cell in which it is born, therefore stopping the virus from infecting other cells.

Malim said the function of CEM 15 has long been a mystery, but that it may be an ancient genetic switch in our DNA aimed at preventing humans from being infected by a class of viruses known as lentiviruses. HIV is a part of this class.

However, HIV is unique in that its genetic material harbours a protein known as Vif (virion infectivity factor), which stops the CEM 15 switch from working.

The scientists found that HIV strands that lack Vif, or have a defective form of this protein, are essentially harmless to humans because the CEM 15 gene stops their reproductive cycle.

According to Newsday Malim also said that CEM is a very promising target for drug development.

The potential significance of the CEM 15 discovery was highlighted by Dr Melissa Farrow of the University of Massachusetts Medical Cen-ter, who told delegates at last week’s International AIDS Conference in Barcelona of a patient who has lived with HIV for 20 years without showing any symptoms and without using any HIV treatments.

Farrow said the patient had a strain of HIV with a defective form of Vif. It would not get into the nucleus of human cells the virus infected, and therefore sat uselessly in the cellular cytoplasm, she said.

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