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Designer Drug Bites HIV Achilles' Heel

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Kim also hopes that the 5-Helix strategy could be used to create an AIDS vaccine. This is because the molecule mimics the HIV Achilles' heel -- a crucial part of the virus normally hidden from the immune system. This crucial target becomes exposed just as the virus prepares to attack. Antibodies against 5-Helix also might attack this structure.

"The notion here is that antibodies against the HIV envelope have not proven very effective, because the virus can rapidly mutate and escape neutralization," Kim explains. "However, there are regions of the envelope that [the virus cannot afford to mutate], but those are normally buried deep inside. But during the [infection] process, these conserved regions become exposed.

"We and others have been interested for some time in coming up with [vaccines] that would elicit antibody responses against these highly conserved regions. 5-Helix might represent one way to do that," he says.

Kim and Hunter both note that 5-Helix is not yet ready for testing. "I personally look at this much more as proof of concept than as a lead molecule for drug discovery," Hunter says.

Kim soon may be in a position to change this. Beginning next month, he will move to a new job: head of worldwide research and development for pharmaceutical giant Merck.

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