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Breakthroughs, challenges and the future of HIV research

Dr. Padilla-Parra from King’s College in London provides expert insight

December 1st is World AIDS Day. We have taken this day as an opportunity to ask some big questions: What is the current state of HIV/AIDS research? What successes have been achieved? And how do we at Leica Microsystems actually support the fight against this disease? We spoke with Sergi Padilla-Parra from the renowned King's College in London.

Dr. Padilla-Parra, you are researching in the field of HIV. Can you describe in a few sentences, what you are trying to find out and what the biggest challenges are?

We are seeking to describe with single molecule resolution how single HIV viruses enter the cell by using advanced light microscopy approaches. We are also studying how to block this process, arguably the most important step of the infection process.

Can you share first successes or breakthroughs? What is the impact of these on the HIV research?

We have described how many molecules (receptors and coreceptors) are engaged with the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein (called Env) and how some families of broadly neutralizing antibodies can disrupt this mechanism of entry in live cells. We have also described how the host metabolism regulates the amount of cholesterol in the plasma membrane of the host cell and the relation of this process with HIV-1 entry and fusion. We have also described the importance of Env dynamics and its relation with HIV maturation. The impact of these studies is strictly related with the future development of treatments aiming at blocking HIV-1 fusion. Also, to understand structurally and dynamically how the process of HIV-1 fusion occurs might lead to rational vaccine design. As you may know, after decades of study there is no vaccine for this retrovirus.

Your lab is equipped with products from Leica Microsystems. What influenced your decision?

It was purely technical. At the time there were not so many microscopes with photon counting detectors and also the possibility of scanning the sample with a constant dwell time.

Thinking of the future, where will HIV research be in 10 years? 

I do not have a magic crystal ball, but hopefully both fundamental and clinical research will get together to produce a vaccine. Importantly, hopefully we will also understand the HIV fusion reaction with its hosts.

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