Dr Mintern is one of only 10 researchers internationally to have received a 2010 Creative and Novel Ideas on HIV Research Award, worth US$300,000. The award is given by the US National Institutes of Health and the NIH-funded Centers for AIDS Research to scientists who are new to HIV research.
A senior postdoctoral fellow in the institute’s Immunology division, Dr Mintern said it was the discovery that a protein called BST-2, or tetherin, was involved in sabotaging HIV infections that led her to the HIV/AIDS field.
“My background is actually in dendritic cell biology and antigen presentation, not HIV research,” Dr Mintern said. But Dr Mintern studies tetherin and had been trying to understand its function in dendritic cells.
Dendritic cells are the sentinels of the immune system. They digest and present proteins from foreign invaders to the immune system, essentially telling it to wake up and attack invading pathogens.
“By coincidence, a group in the US was looking at HIV molecules that restrict release of the virus from HIV-infected cells, preventing the virus from moving on to infect other cells,” Dr Mintern said.
“Tetherin, the molecule the researchers identified as responsible for ‘tethering’ the virus to the cell, happens to be highly expressed on dendritic cells. This is something we have known for years but have never really known why. This research project will bring the two findings together and hopefully help us figure out tetherin’s function on dendritic cells.”
One particular type of dendritic cell, the plasmacytoid dendritic cell, has particularly high levels of tetherin. This cell type is known to contribute to the early immunological events that follow virus infection.
Dr Mintern said tetherin levels on conventional dendritic cells had also been observed to increase in response to infection. “So there are hints that the behaviour of tetherin in dendritic cells might mean it plays a role in virus infection,” she said.
Dr Mintern said the new project would investigate whether the tetherin molecule on dendritic cells could capture and internalise viruses and if this action could initiate an immune response.
“The HIV finding suggests that tetherin could act as a virus capture molecule, enabling the dendritic cells to take up virus,” she said. “Since the discovery, it’s basically turned out that all enveloped viruses can be tethered via this molecule, it’s not virus-specific. If it turns out tetherin is great at capturing virus antigens and initiating an immune response, it’s possible that it could be used to develop a type of vaccination to exploit that pathway.”
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