Stories about: structural biology

Getting closer to cracking HIV’s envelope protein

missing segment of HIV envelope could be target for HIV vaccine
(IMAGE: ADOBE STOCK)

For 30 years, researchers have tried to develop an HIV vaccine that would stop the virus from gaining a foothold in the body — before it attaches to T cells and slowly weakens the immune system.

“It has been extremely challenging to induce effective antibody responses against HIV-1,” says Bing Chen, PhD, who researches HIV’s molecular mechanisms at Boston Children’s Hospital.

HIV offers just one target for a vaccine to mimic to trigger protective antibodies: the envelope protein on its surface. Scientists have been struggling to capture the complex protein’s precise structure — and specifically, its structure before the virus fuses with the T-cell membrane.

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Shining light on a global killer — in 3D

Efforts to create a malaria vaccine have had limited success. Springer and colleagues solved the 3D structure of a key protein on the parasite -- and found a fragment which they'll soon test as a vaccine. (Photos_by_Angela/Flickr)

From the perspective of a wealthy country, malaria is a problem that is solved. It’s like smallpox. We ask, Who gets it?  Who cares? Isn’t it better to invest in diabetes?

In truth, malaria is more infectious than ever, endemic to 106 nations, threatening half the world’s population and stalling economic development and prosperity.

That’s part of the reason why Timothy A. Springer, PhD, an investigator in the Program in Cellular and Molecular (PCMM) Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Immune Disease Institute (IDI), took on Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. Another is that he likes solving problems in immunology – and has made his name discovering molecules that both promote and fight infections, in part by understanding their structures.

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The shape of things to come

Detailed image of a bacterial enzyme used to degrade a major organic pollutant.

Imagine you’re a long-suffering biologist, and imagine that the problem is figuring out the three-dimensional shape of a very important molecule. The solution could lead to (a) new insights into disease and potential therapies, and (b) career advancement. What if someone gave you virtually unlimited computer power that could crack the problem you’re trying to solve overnight?

team at Children’s Hospital Boston has created a super-charged way of solving molecule shapes, harnessing idle scientific computer time across the country and around the world to survey vast reference databases – a “Google Shape” if you will.

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