US and Canadian scientists have announced a possible breakthrough which could help in the development of an HIV vaccine.

The researchers, from the University of Montreal, McGill University Health Centre and BD BioSciences of San Diego, say that they have indentified how a particular protein fights and limits the scope of HIV infection.

The study, which was published on the website of the Nature Medicine journal, discovered that the protein FOX03a can be used to protect T-cells and in central memory cells. These cells play a key role in fighting infection and are targeted by the HI virus.

“HIV infection is characterised by the slow demise of T-cells, in particular central memory cells, which can mediate lifelong protection against viruses,” said lead researcher Rafick-Pierre Sékaly in a statement.

“Our group has found how the key protein, FOX03a, is vital to the survival of central memory cells that are defective in HIV-infected individuals even if they are treated,” added Dr. Sékaly.

The breakthrough emerged by studying three groups of men: One HIV-negative sample, a second HIV-positive group whose infection was successfully controlled through tritherapy and a third group whose HIV did not show any symptoms.

Called elite controllers, the third group fended off infection without treatment because their immune system, which would normally be attacked by HIV, maintained its resilient immune memory through the manipulation of the FOX03a protein.

“This is the first study to examine, in people rather than animals, what shields the body’s immune system from infection and to pinpoint the fundamental role of FOX03a in defending the body,” said Dr. Haddad, another researcher in the study.

Beyond HIV treatment, Dr. Sékaly said his team’s discovery offers promise not just for HIV but also for other immune diseases.

“The discovery of FOX03a will enable scientists to develop appropriate therapies for other viral diseases that weaken the immune system,” he said, citing cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis C, as well as organ or bone marrow transplant rejection.

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