The HIV-1 virus is one of the most difficult targets for therapy because it hijacks the cells of our immune system and particularly because the virus mutates rapidly, making it drug resistant. Up to 20% of HIV-infected patients host virus that is drug resistant.

The current "Highly active antiretroviral treatment" (HAART therapy) against HIV uses a combination of several different drugs, which increases the probability of simultaneous development of resistance against different drugs. A team of Slovenian undergraduate students from the University of Ljubljana together with their mentors from the National institute of chemistry of Slovenia (NIC) has developed a new strategy of antiviral defense that is not breached by viral mutations.

Their approach, which the students half-jokingly called »Virotrap« is based on detecting viral function rather than specific sequences.

Viral function such as attachment to the host cells triggers a cellular response which can either activate the antiviral defence or lead to a destruction of infected cells to prevent spread of the infection. The effect of viral mutations is thus avoided since mutations that cause the loss of the function also render the virus harmless.

Leader of the team, prof. Roman Jerala from the NIC says: “The same approach could be implemented for defence against other viral infections. We think we can design the system that can be activated also by other HIV-specific functions”. Animal experiments will be needed to test the therapeutic potentials of this system, which would be applied as gene therapy but results on cells look very promising.

Team competed with this project at the recent international Genetically Engineered Machines competition iGEM) held at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the first weekend of November and was among the 56 teams selected among the six finalists and won the fist prize among the projects on the topic of Health and Medicine. Other interesting projects in this competition included artificial blood made of bacteria by the Berkeley team (Bactoblood), anticancer therapy based on the siRNA by the Princeton team, Infector detector by the Imperial College team, multicellular organisms based on bacteria by the Paris team and many others.