Scientists have successfully detailed the structure of a protein that plays a critical role in HIV infection – a finding that could further the development of an AIDS vaccine, Medical News Today reported.

In two new studies published in Science, researchers from The Scripps Research Institute and Weill Cornell Medical College used two different state-of-the-art structural imaging techniques to detail Env, a three-part protein (a trimer) found on the surface of HIV.  The researchers said that understanding Env is crucial for knowing how the virus infects human cells.

According to Medical News Today, all of the HIV vaccines that have been developed so far have failed at protecting individuals against infection, mostly because of the challenges presented by Env.  The trimer is effective at avoiding immune system attacks and frequently mutates it’s outer regions, making it hard to target.

In order to understand Env’s image and structure, the researchers created a more stable version of the protein in the lab. Then using cryo-electron microscopy and X-ray crystallography, they were able to study its structure and how it interacts with HIV.  According to Medical News Today, these studies provide the most detailed understanding of Env to date.

"Most of the prior structural studies of this envelope complex focused on individual subunits,” said senior author, Ian A. Wilson, from the Hansen Professor of Structural Biology, “but we've needed the structure of the full complex to properly define the sites of vulnerability that could be targeted, for example with a vaccine."

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