A Family Interest in Curing HIV
Dr. Andrés Finzi
Andrés Finzi, Ph.D., was a small boy when he learned about HIV from his mother, a doctor who had treated one of the first children diagnosed with HIV in France. Now, an amfAR grantee, Dr. Finzi, of Université de Montréal, is working to expose HIV-infected cells to the immune system, so the body’s natural defenses can eliminate the infected cells and wipe out the virus. In this personal essay, he discusses his early childhood interest in HIV, his current research, and where it fits in our search for a cure.
Dr. Andrés Finzi with his mother Dr. Laura Vega.Since I was a young boy growing up in Patagonia, Argentina, I have been committed to learning everything I could about HIV. My early interest in the virus was inspired by my mother, who is a doctor. In the 1980s, when I was about 3 or 4, she treated one of the first children diagnosed with HIV in France. Very little was known about HIV and AIDS at that time, and there was virtually nothing she could do for the boy.
A few years later, in Argentina, she was asked to give a lecture on HIV. I remember running around the kitchen table as my mother prepared her talk, bombarding her with questions. Finally, she said to me, “You know, Andrés, it is a terrible virus. It actually attacks our own immune system. On top of that, this virus is very, very smart. It is extremely good at hiding.”
Full of youthful innocence, I said, “Well, just expose the virus to the immune system and that’s it!” She replied, “Well, Andrés, it’s a little more complicated than that.”
Of course, she was right. Today, in my laboratory at Université de Montréal, I am still working to expose HIV-infected cells to the immune system so the body’s natural defenses can eliminate the infected cells and wipe out the infection. And, as my mother predicted, it is not easy.
Our immune system does an extraordinary job of fighting infections. One of the first lines of defense is our CD4 (or T-helper) cells, a type of white blood cell that detects intruders like viruses or bacteria and sends signals to activate an immune response that wipes out the infection. At least, that’s how it is supposed to work.
But HIV is clever. The virus infects the CD4 cells, weakening the immune system while producing and releasing thousands more copies of itself. It also covers its tracks.
"But HIV is clever. The virus infects the CD4 cells, weakening the immune system while producing and releasing thousands more copies of itself. It also covers its tracks."
When HIV infects a CD4 cell, it removes the CD4 receptor on the surface of the cell and expresses its envelope glycoproteins required to infect new cells. HIV keeps its envelope closed, so our immune systems cannot read the contents. In other words, our natural defenses don’t recognize – and kill – HIV-infected cells.
But if we could open the envelope, would our bodies be able to identify infected cells and trigger our immune system to attack – and effectively cure – HIV? I believe they could.
Using a molecule similar to CD4 developed by other researchers, my team was able to force open HIV’s “envelope.” And when we did, naturally occurring antibodies suddenly were able to interact with the HIV-infected cells. The antibodies then triggered an immune response that killed the cells harboring the virus.
This is a great step forward! It means we might be able to develop a strategy that could prevent HIV transmission and help eradicate HIV.
It has taken us more than four years of work in the lab to get to this point. Now we need to replicate this experiment in animals, then in human clinical trials. It won’t be easy, but I believe we have a path forward!