Tag Archives: histones

Luring HIV out of its latency may be the secret to developing an effective HIV cure

Contributed by guest blogger: Steven Chan ‘12

The emergence of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in the treatment of HIV-infected individuals has certainly changed the outlook of an HIV diagnosis today, compared to what such an outlook looked like in the earliest years of the epidemic. Such a treatment regimen, if strictly adhered to, has the potential to suppress the levels of active circulating HIV in the infected individual to a level that is manageable, essentially halting the progression of the disease. It soon became clear however, that these treatments could not effectively clear the body of all HIV particles—the virus manages to stow itself away within the cellular genome of the memory CD4+ T-cells, and remain transcriptionally silent indefinitely. These latent reservoirs of HIV-infected cells prove to be undetectable for these antiretroviral therapies, since antiretroviral drugs can only target HIV-infected cells when they are replicating. And so, memory cells, which replicate infrequently, cannot be effectively targeted, making it impossible to clear HIV-infected bodies of all HIV-particles. “We’re never going to cure anybody unless we go for this latent pool,” says Robert Siliciano, the researcher at Johns Hopkins University that first identified the latent HIV memory-T cells.

A great deal of HIV-therapy research over the past decade has focused on finding a way to coax these infected cells out of their latency to make them detectable by antiretroviral drugs. The problem that has been persistently hounding researchers has been the difficulty in luring these cells out of their latency without triggering the immune system in an inflammation response that would end up doing more harm than good. David Margolis, MD, and his research team at UNC Chapel Hill, who have been working on this problem for a while now, have found success with a set of histone deacetylase inhibitors called Zolinza (vorinostat), a chemotherapeutic cancer drug that has been found to stimulate gene expression within the latent HIV-infected cells without inducing an overwhelming immune response. HDAC inhibitors accomplish this by inhibiting the activity of histone deacetylase, which removes the acetyl groups from the lysine residues in the core histones, resulting in the formation of a condensed and transcriptionally silenced chromatin. By inhibiting this activity, the core histones become less compact, and the chromatin becomes more transcriptionally active. After initial success with in vitro tests in cell cultures and in blood tissues, six HIV-positive men were recruited in a clinical trial pairing this treatment alongside consistent antiretroviral therapy. Each of the study volunteers had already been taking part in a robust antiviral regimen for an average of four years, and displayed undetectable viral loads and stable CD4+ T-cell counts. Post-exposure to Zolinza, HIV-RNA levels—a marker of viral activity—in these patients increased by an average of 4.8 times, ranging from a 1.5-fold increase in one patient to a 10.0-fold increase in another. The drug took effect in as little as 8 hours, inducing a two-fold increase in cellular and chromatin-bound histone acetylation within that time span. Increased expression made these cells susceptible to detection and eradication by the antiretroviral drugs, which proceeds just as efficiently as usual.

Margolis addresses the significance of this advancement, “This study provides first proof of concept, demonstrating disruption of latency, a significant step toward eradication.” Just how effective this drug is in teasing out the latent cells still remains to be seen—with nearly a ten-fold difference in one trial participant compared to the other, the efficacy of such a drug remains questionable. The limited sample size in this initial trial also doesn’t give us too much to go on. There are also concerns that the drug could induce some serious side effects such as blood clots in the legs and lungs, diabetes, fewer platelets and RBC count, as well as dehydration from nausea and vomiting, but at least in this trial, there were only mild adverse effects at worst. Little is known about the potential adverse effects of long-term use of the drug. Margolis et al.’s study design made use of a single dose of Vorinostat, but it is likely that repeated intermittent doses would yield the most optimal effects. “Vorinostat may not be the magic bullet, but this success shows us a new way to test drugs to target latency and suggests that we can build a path that may lead to a cure,” says Margolis. Further studies to assess Vorinostat’s safety and effectiveness, and the way it interacts with other HAART treatments, would certainly be crucial before it can be deployed as a component in future HIV treatment regimen.



Archin N, Liberty A, Kashuba A, Choudhary S, Kuruc J, Hudgens M, Kearney M, Eron J, Hazuda D, and Margolis D. “Administration of Vorinostat Disrupts HIV-1 Latency in Patients on ART,” HIV Persistence, Latency, and Eradication at 19th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, March 8, 2012,              http://www.retroconference.org/2012b/Abstracts/45315.htm

Contreras X, Schwenwker M, Chen CS, McCune JM, Deeks SG, Martin J, Peterlin BM. Suberoylanilide Hydroxamic Acid Reactivates HIV from Latently Infected Cells, J. Biol. Chem., January 9, 2009, http://www.jbc.org/content/284/11/6782.full

Horn T. “Pathway to a Cure: Cancer Drug Helps Purge HIV From Resting Cells,”  AidsMeds, March 9, 2012, http://www.aidsmeds.com/articles/hiv_vorinostat_ cure_1667_22059.shtml

“Lymphoma Drug Wakes Up Dormant HIV,” AidsMeds, March 17, 2009,     http://www.aidsmeds.com/articles/hiv_zolinza_latent_1667_16307.shtml

Steven Chan is a senior at Vassar College, majoring in Science, Technology, and Society


Polydnavirus: Good for the Parasitic Wasp, Bad for the Host Caterpillar

Contributed by guest blogger: Jason Adler 

An endoparasitoid wasp would disagree with the popular perception of viruses as malevolent. Parasitoids are organisms that spend a substantial portion of their life cycle in the host; unlike a parasite, a parasitoid usually kills or sterilizes the host. Endoparasitoid wasp oviposit into the body cavity of caterpillars. When the wasp larvae emerges, it then consumes the host as it develops.

Polydnaviruses (PDV), a family of double stranded DNA insect viruses, are symbiotic to some endoparasitoid wasps. Of two PDV genera, genus Ichnovirus is specific to ichneumoid wasps and Bracovirus to braconid wasps. The PDV genome is located on host wasp chromosomes in a segmented, proviral form. However, the integrated PDV genome is not fully functional as it cannot replicate independent of the wasp and capsid proteins are non-existent.  It is unknown if PDV is derived from wasp genes or if ancestral wasps integrated a beneficial PDV into their genome with resulting loss of the genes responsible for capsid formation and virus replication.

As such, PDV only replicates at specific ovarian cells during the late pupal phase, where it acquires two viral envelopes. PDV integration does not occur in the viral life cycle; instead, the viral genome is vertically transmitted to wasp offspring during meiosis. When the female wasp injects her eggs into the lepidopteran host, virions are co-injected and result in infection. Although, PDV does not replicate in the host caterpillar, it does result in immunosuppression and alters the host development (i.e. prevents metamorphosis) and metabolism to favor the parasitoid larva. The normal response of lepidopteran larvae to small foreign material is phagocytosis, but larger pathogens must be encapsulated. This is accomplished through melanization, where certain hemocytes, invertebrate immune cells found in the hemolymph, secrete melanin, which surrounds the pathogen so that anti-microbial peptides can destroy it. When immune suppressed, host hemocytes do not destroy the wasp egg by forming hemocyte nodules. Thus, PDV and the wasp share a mutualistic relationship.

Cotesia plutellae, a braconid wasp, possesses a PDV – C. plutellae bracovirus (CpBV) – and parasitizes larvae of the diamond-back moth Plutella xylotsella. Recent research has found that CpBV encodes a viral histone H4 that shares high sequence homology with histone H4 on P. xylostella, except for the last 38 residues comprising the N-terminal tail. Additionally, this viral histone H4 N-terminal tail have been observed in other Cotesia-associated PDVs. It has been suggested that the N-terminal tail is altering gene expression regulation as viral H4 histones less easily detach from DNA than host H4 histones, thereby inhibiting transcription. Is the N-terminal tail of CpBV-H4 causing immunosuppression? The researchers hypothesized that the N-terminal tail is causing the suppression of antimicrobial peptide (AMP) genes.

To examine the effects of CpBV-H4, the researchers constructed two viral recombinants: a WT CpBV-H4 and a truncated CpBV-H4 that lacks the N-terminal tail. After injection of the viral vector into the host caterpillar, RT-PCR was used to look at the expression of putative AMP genes. Although basal expression levels were unchanged, when E. coli was introduced to the host to present an immune challenge CpBV-H4 inhibited inducible expression, while truncated CpBV-H4 did not. Additionally, by counting the number of melanized black nodules on the host caterpillar after injection of E. coli and the viral vector, the researchers assessed the immune response. While the larvae show hemocyte nodule formation in response to E. coli infection, transient expression of CpBV-H4 significantly suppressed the immune response by decreasing nodule formation, while truncated CpBV-H4 had no effect. Finally, the researchers examined a possible synergistic effect of CpBV-H4 and the entomopathogenic bacterium X. nematophila. Without CpBV-H4, X. nematophila infection resulted in low mortality; however, with CpBV-H4, there was significantly increased mortality with this synergistic effect lost if CpBV-H4 was truncated.

Based on these results, the researchers concluded that the N-terminal tail appears to be responsible for immunosuppression by inhibiting inducible expression of AMP genes, possibly by altering a normal epigenetic control. CpBV-H4 containing nucleosomes may less easily detach from DNA during transcription due to the increased positive charge resulting from the increased number of lysine residues in the N-terminal tail. By introducing a virus that expresses a viral H4 histone with a N-terminal tail, the parasitoid wasp is able to suppress the host immune system. This is important as without the immune suppression, the host hemocytes would encapsulate and destroy the wasp egg.

With 157 putative genes, CpBV is likely to have more than this one mechanism to suppress host immunity. Are there other mechanisms of CpBV immune suppression?  How else is the complex ecological relationship of wasp, virus, and caterpillar host mediated at the molecular level?



Jason Adler is a senior at Vassar College, majoring in biology.