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Supercomputer Serves as Weapon in AIDS Fight

By M.L. Baker  |  Posted 2006-06-05 Print this article Print

Scientists at Stony Brook University have used a supercomputer to probe HIV's weak spots in an effort to provide more effective drugs.

Researchers at Stony Brook University's Center for Structural Biology wanted to understand how an essential HIV protein switched between two known conformations.

They used computer simulation to model the transition and identified a new conformation that helps explain HIV's vulnerability to a class of drugs known as protease inhibitors.

The research at the university, based in Stony Brook, N.Y., could eventually lead to more effective forms of AIDS drugs.

Small molecule drugs, typically taken as pills, tend to work by gumming up cellular machinery, usually proteins. This happens because both proteins and drug molecules have specific shapes. Such drugs are identified by finding molecules that fit into crevices or cavities in the protein.

Drug researchers often make crystals of proteins to examine the shape of these crevices and design drug molecules that fit the protein more snugly.

But in the case of HIV protease, crystal structures were little help. In the crystallized forms, the cavities and crevices in the protein were very small, too small to let drug molecules in.

Stony Brook's Carlos Simmerling used a supercomputer to model how HIV protease switched between two shapes, and saw a new conformation where the cavities open wider.

The work reveals how drugs like Kaletra and Viracept fit into the protein and stop it from working.

An "open" conformation of HIV protease was expected, but had not previously been described in detail.

Computer modelling is routinely used in drug design, but certain simulations are often not attempted. Simmerling said that access to Silicon Graphics' Altix through the NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications) made him go ahead with the project.

Read the full story on eWEEK.com: Supercomputer Serves as Weapon in AIDS Fight

Monya Baker is co-editor of CIOInsight.com's Health Care Center. She has written for publications including the journal Nature Biotechnology, the Acumen Journal of Sciences and the American Medical Writers Association, among others, and has worked as a consultant with biotechnology companies. A former high school science teacher, Baker holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Carleton College and a master's of education from Harvard.
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