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Understanding retroviruses

Prof. Dr. Klaus Überla, head of the Institute of Clinical and Molecular Virology at FAU (Image: C. Deppe)

FAU virologist Prof. Dr. Klaus Überla talks about the challenges of retrovirus research

There is currently no cure for patients with HIV or the T-cell leukaemia virus. Possible approaches to finding cures for these viruses is one of the topics of an international basic research conference on retrovirology in Erlangen from 12 to 14 September 2016. The conference is hosted by two HIV experts. Prof. Dr. Klaus Überla, head of the Institute of Clinical and Molecular Virology at FAU, develops HIV vaccines and Prof. Dr. Frank Kirchhoff from the Institute of Molecular Virology at Universitätsklinikum Ulm conducts research on the evolution of HIV and disease development. We spoke to Prof. Dr. Klaus Überla about the challenges of retrovirus research.

What makes retroviruses so sophisticated?

In order to replicate, retroviruses embed their DNA in the host cell’s genome. This means that they stay in the host cell throughout its lifetime. Some retroviruses became part of our DNA a long time ago: eight percent of human DNA can be attributed to them. These viruses, known as endogenous retroviruses, infected egg cells or sperm thousands of years ago and have been passed down from parents to their children ever since. Certain retroviral genes are actually responsible for the placenta forming properly – this is a positive side of retroviruses.

One of the most well known retroviruses is HIV. AIDS can now be treated, but there is still no cure. What challenges does this present for society?

AIDS is no longer terrifying. This means that people have become careless, which in turn leads to more infections. In Germany alone, one in one-thousand people are infected with HIV. We have more people with HIV than ever before. The number of infections is rising, not just in Germany but all over the world. Life-long HIV treatment costs 15,000 euros a year. This is a considerable financial burden for our healthcare system.

How could diseases caused by retroviruses be cured?

We are working on gaining a better understanding of how retroviruses replicate and developing strategies for cures. One research approach is for the immune system to remove the retrovirus from the infected person. Research is also being conducted into new vaccines that can offer protection against HIV infection and are designed to prevent it. Analysing the function of the shell protein, an important protein in HIV, plays a key role here. Vaccination is the most effective way of avoiding AIDS and the most effective strategy for solving the HIV problem in, for example, Africa. Vaccination is also much less expensive than antiviral therapy. The most successful effectiveness studies in the world achieved 30 percent protection among people who were vaccinated. That is not enough. We are trying to improve this.

What is the significance of retrovirus research?

A great deal of research has been conducted on HIV over the last 30 years. Researchers have not only learnt a great deal about HIV and gained fundamental insights, they have also developed immunisation strategies that can be used for other viral diseases. The current drug therapy is very effective against AIDS. In contrast, there is no antiviral therapy or vaccine for T-cell leukaemia. Both prophylactic measures and treatments are urgently needed in this case.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Klaus Überla
Phone: +49 9131 8523563

Conference website: www.frontiers-of-retrovirology.com

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