Bionanoscience targets HIV infections

New research at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience studies the molecular basis of HIV infections. “We want to see how drugs work.”

Elio Abbondanzieri in his brand new office. (Photo: Tomas van Dijk)
Elio Abbondanzieri in his brand new office. (Photo: Tomas van Dijk)

His room is still very much bare, as Dr Elio Abbondanzieri only just started work at the faculty of Applied Sciences’ bionanoscience department on January 3rd. In fact he’s still waiting for a container of his personal belongings and his Toyota Prius to arrive. Abbondanzieri came to Delft together with his wife, Dr Anne Meyer, who works independently in the same department. After a PhD from Stanford and postdoc at Harvard, Dr Abbondanzieri chose Delft as his next posting, having initially been contacted by Professor Cees Dekker, the bionanoscience department chairman. Dr Abbondanzieri had also known of Prof. Dekker and Dr Nynke Dekker through their work and publications.
“After the United States, the Netherlands is second in terms of papers in biophysics,” Dr Abbondanzieri says of his move to Delft. At Harvard he had worked with Professor Xiaowei Zhuang on reverse transcriptase, a line of research he will continue in Delft. Reverse transcriptase is a viral enzyme that translates viral RNA into DNA – a process unique to retroviruses. The resulting ‘complementary DNA’ is then inserted into the host’s DNA by yet another enzyme (integrase).

Perhaps the most notorious retrovirus is the HIV virus, the cause of AIDS. Dr Abbondanzieri calls reverse transcriptase “the key in the armour of the HIV virus”. Two out of four most commonly used classes of HIV-antivirals target the essential enzyme.

By using advanced fluorescent microscopy, Dr Abbondanzieri and colleagues have been able to show how the transcriptase enzyme grips an RNA strand like two hands gripping an arm, although the weird thing about this is that, despite the strong grip, transcriptase can suddenly detach, flip around and grip again, which is a trick essential for its functioning. “Now that we know how that works, we can add drugs and watch their interaction and the effect they have,” says the new assistant professor, who plans to test experimental drugs by visualising their molecular interaction with their targets. “Once you have the right instruments and techniques,” Dr Abbondanzieri says, “you have a window on nature that very few have. It raises a host of new questions.” 

Other new arrivals at Bionanoscience are Dr Anne Meyer from MIT and Dr Chirlmin Joo from Seoul National University in South Korea.


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