Synthetic Molecules Trick Body Into Improved Immune Response to HIV, Cancer

HIV Budding
CDC

When it comes to eluding detection, HIV and cancer cells are at the top of the class. As such, the few treatments currently available to sufferers of HIV or prostate cancer are generally expensive, often hard to manufacture, and come packaged with a smattering of unpleasant side effects. But Yale researchers have now developed synthetic molecules that help the body recognize HIV and prostate cancer cells as threats, tricking the body into initiating an immune response that it normally would not.

Both HIV and prostate cancer have biological methods of flying under the immune system's radar, cruising throughout the body without raising red flags. But the Yale group's synthetic molecules -- known as "antibody-recruiting molecule targeting HIV (or ARM-H) and "antibody-recruiting molecule targeting prostate cancer" (or ARM-P) -- bind both to antibodies already present in the bloodstream and to the offending cells at the same time.

Much as a seeing-eye dog might guide its owner's hand directly to a doorknob, the synthetic cells guide the antibodies directly to proteins on HIV or cancer cells, making a connection that the antibodies cannot make on their own. The antibodies in turn send up a red flag, tagging the pathogen as a threat and triggering an immune system response that otherwise would not take place. The body then has a chance to fight off the intruders rather than allowing them to mix unchallenged among healthy cells. ARM-H even goes a step further, keeping the HIV-infected cells from going about their usual business of infecting more cells.

Inexpensive to produce and theoretically administrable in pill form, ARM-P and ARM-H could potentially replace current antiviral and chemical treatments like chemotherapy and radiation that kill malicious cells but also disrupt healthy tissues. As they do so, these synthetic molecules could curb the spread of HIV, which affects 33 million worldwide, and take the edge off of prostate cancer, the second-leading cancer-related cause of death for American men.