Unlocking a Mystery

Researchers decipher how HIV spreads at the most basic cellular level

Case Western Reserve researchers are working to better understand the molecular mysteries of HIV to learn how the virus takes over the body's cells.

Associate professor of chemistry Blanton Tolbert, PhD, and his 11-person team recently produced three studies—including one published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society—that in different ways ask the same question: What interactions are happening at the cellular level to allow HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, to replicate and spread to other, healthy cells?

"When a copy of HIV goes into the chromosome of a healthy cell, that cell is infected for life," said Tolbert. "My lab is looking to understand the molecular basis in which that [process] takes place."

One challenge to developing a cure is that HIV can lie dormant and hidden in cells for years, making it difficult to target and treat effectively. But if the virus rebounds from that state, it can spread rapidly and then be hard to contain.

Tolbert is addressing that problem by studying how HIV—a retrovirus whose genes are encoded in RNA instead of DNA—could be driven from its dormancy earlier so it can be targeted and attacked by drugs.

In 2017, Tolbert's accomplishments garnered him the university's inaugural Morton L. Mandel Award, which honors outstanding chemistry faculty members.

The ultimate aim of his research—funded by about $2.5 million from the National Institutes of Health—is to discover enough about HIV's mechanisms that drug manufacturers can develop a new generation of medications.

—Douglas J. Guth