HIV: Caught in the Act

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No miracle drugs. No wonder cures. No promises of panacea. The AIDS breakthrough announced Thursday in the journal Nature is a far more critical step: The decoding, if you will, of HIV's encryption key. For the first time, scientists have been able to snap X-ray pictures of what exactly happens when the virus that causes AIDS latches on to our immune cells -- and it's proving itself to be a more pernicious predator than anyone imagined. Dozens of spikes of protein stick out of its side, swathed in sugar so our antibodies won't be able to tell it apart from the other proteins in our blood. Not only that, HIV is also able to change shape. Dr. Joseph Sodroski, one of the researchers, branded it "a viral Houdini."

Of course, now that we know the extent of HIV's nastiness we can get a lot closer to defeating it. The little hook that HIV uses to bind itself to cell receptor CCR5, for example, could be the virus' Achilles' heel. Blocking that hook may be the key to preventing HIV's ability to infect. "There's no question we're better off now than we were before," said Sodroski. "Before we were blind, now we are sighted." And that's a miracle in itself.