Number crunchers have never been much of nature lovers. Most venture capitalists, as it were, would rather be content, mulling over their wins and losses in the vagaries of business transactions of a life sciences company, than showering encomiums on the potential benefits of a technology that could potentially double up as a silver bullet for debilitating diseases such as diabetes, cancer or AIDS.

In principle thus, financial speculators and their markets, have little patience for technologies that do not offer tangible monetary benefits. While biologists have relied heavily on favors of financial wizards and investors, to fund their intellectual pursuits, neither parties at either side of the fence have considered cross disciplinary application of knowledge and tools in order to further their respective business interests, which if done, would defy conventional logic and thought leading a layman to scoff in amusement about the relationships that financial tools had with treating diseases except paying one’s medical bills, with scrupulous religiosity.

In the midst of such speculation and search for logic, the random matrix tool, a popular computational algorithm used largely in the estimation of stock prices in financial markets, has come to the rescue of one of the most vexing problems in biology- developing a cure and vaccination for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, known more across the neighbourhood as AIDS. Estimates by the WHO suggest that the dreaded viral disease affects over 2 million people worldwide with the existing morbid population climbing upto 33 million.

Much to the dissent of policy makers and healthcare specialists, current therapeutic modalities involving anti retroviral therapies such as AZT, acyclovir and gancyclovir have not lent much saving grace considering that these therapeutics while ostensibly offering a suitable disease management mechanism, do not reflect therapeutic outcomes that suggest a deficit in the ability of existing treatment options to meet the burgeoning numbers of therapeutics that have reached a staggering 90 million untreated patients worldwide. While economists and health professionals are focused on addressing the issue of plugging the deficit, a rather fundamental and pertinent focus that would apply to all stakeholders would be to first address the challenge posed by the treatment options and how one may couple technological prowess with financial acumen to drive forth a potent cocktail of targeted therapeutics and programmed immunity.

The AIDS virus is amongst the most investigated microorganism on the planet today. All of 0.1 microns and a high mutation rate- the rate at which the genetic material undergoes changes in its structure or composition, time and again, scientists have been puzzled by the fickle nature of the virus and its ability to outsmart the immune system, thanks to its coat, that has an uncanny pretentious capability to pass off as a molecule synthesized by the body. The stealth mechanism adopted by the virus, has by far made treatment options elusive.

While the diagnosis of the AIDS infection in humans has been relatively easy to capture through the now ubiquitous ELISA test, combating the cell coat has remained herculean and myopic at best. Most therapeutics have focused on eliciting an immune response from specific molecules called cytotoxic T lymphocytes; but have been largely limited to arresting the progression of an already lurking disease. Alternatively, the development of antiviral antibodies has not held much water owing to the “molecular paralysis” wrought by the whimsical viral coat. As a consequence, the battle to develop a suitable treatment strategy, stands uncontested and unipolar until now.

Early last week, a collaborative group of researchers spread across the crème de la crème of institutions including Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, National Cancer Institute, University of Loughborough and the University of Tokyo, published a study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, demonstrating the ability to identify conserved mutating regions in the AIDS virus using the financial application principles of the random matrix tool. The team applied an interesting simile of the random matrix tool that assesses the price fluctuations of a group of interrelated stocks, to identify a conserved group of viral coat proteins termed the group specific antigen ,commonly termed the Gag protein, which is attributed to the development of the viral infrastructure.

By far, the approach employed by the team was simplified owing to the preexistent capabilities of the random matrix tools. Beginning with a sequence analysis from the Los Alamos HIV sequence database, the team capitalized on the ability of the random matrix tool to correlate and identify conserved stocks, through a set of properties known as Eigen values. The team observed that positive Eigen Values corresponded with mutations in the conserved Gag sequences while negative Eigen values implied a higher incidence of independent mutations that are more of the norm than the exception in the AIDS virus.

Interestingly, the group observed that this model corroborated splendidly in sequenced viral genomes of those patients that were able to combat the AIDS virus without resorting to external treatment, as a consequence of the coordinated mutation link phenomenon.The study lead by Bruce D Walker and Arup Chakrabarthy at HHMI and MIT opens up the possibility of targeting the Gag protein group as a vulnerable target for HIV therapeutic development, thereby opening up the doors for predictive disease risk and therapeutic assessment of patient subgroups infected with AIDS.

Considering the recent financial fiasco, it would be no surprise if the trading community found a bunch of biologists pursuing therapeutic strategies, akin to an investment portfolio. As a matter of serendipity, virologists may just hold the key to a secure economy.