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A New Tool for Investigating HIV in the Brain

August 07, 2018
By Stacey C. Tobin, Ph.D., ELS, NIDA Notes Contributing Writer

In this research:

  • Researchers developed a tool that enables them to closely monitor HIV activity in key brain cells.
  • The tool may accelerate the development of treatments for HIV in the brain.

Scientists at NIDA’s Intramural Research Program (IRP) have developed a tool to advance the study of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection in the brain. It may further understanding of how HIV produces the impairments in thinking, movement, and behavior known as HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND). It also may advance the discovery and testing of treatments to alleviate HAND or to eradicate the virus from reservoirs in the central nervous system.

Dr. Lee Campbell and colleagues at IRP created the tool to enable researchers to closely monitor HIV activity in brain cells called microglia. These immune cells are the primary site of HIV infection in the brain and central nervous system. When infected by HIV, they respond by secreting inflammatory and other substances that harm neighboring neurons, causing or contributing to HAND. In addition, when HIV infects microglia, it integrates its viral DNA, or provirus, into the cells’ genome. The provirus may remain inactive or it may actively replicate, potentially releasing new viral particles into the surrounding brain tissue, causing additional cells to become infected.

The new tool couples provirus activity in microglia to production of a luminescent protein (NanoLuciferase), so that the two rise and fall together. Researchers can measure the amount of luminescent protein in the microglia and use it to compute the level of provirus activity. They can expose the microglia experimentally to different substances and conditions in vitro and track any resulting changes in proviral activity and cell function.

Figure 1. Strategy Used To Create Microglia Containing a Modified HIV Provirus Some of the HIV genes (gag, pol) were replaced with a new gene (NanoLuc) that allows researchers to monitor activation of the modified provirus. Other HIV genes remained intact, as did the two regulatory regions (5′ and 3′ LTR) at the ends of the proviral DNA. The modified HIV proviral DNA was then inserted into a specific site (ROSA26) within the microglial genome using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing.
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To create their tool, the IRP researchers used the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system to insert the HIV provirus containing NanoLuciferase into the genome of a laboratory microglial cell line (CHME5) (see Figure 1). To test the modified provirus in the microglial cells, they exposed the cells to substances known to increase or decrease proviral activity. The modified provirus responded to the exposures like normal HIV provirus, indicating that it can be used to elucidate the dynamics of normal provirus (Figure 2). Moreover, the researchers were able to manipulate and observe proviral activity with ease.

Figure 2. The Modified HIV Provirus Integrated Into a Microglial Cell Line Responds to Activators and Inhibitors in the Same Way as Normal HIV Provirus When treated with the pro-inflammatory molecule lipopolysaccharide (LPS), the modified HIV virus was activated, as is observed with normal HIV. The inhibitor sulfasalazine did not affect the activity of the modified HIV provirus, but at higher concentrations prevented LPS-induced activation.
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“Our research has the potential to help us both understand and treat HIV infections in the brain,” says Dr. Brandon Harvey of the IRP team. “Our long-term goals are to determine how drugs of abuse influence HIV biology in the brain and learn how to therapeutically target HIV that takes up residency in the brain.” Among research objectives that the tool may facilitate is developing therapies that permanently suppress proviral activity in microglia, a potential major step in curing the disease. Alternatively, researchers might use the tool to find ways to “wake up” inactive HIV so that it can be targeted by antiretroviral therapy (the so-called “kick and kill” approach).

This study was supported by NIH grant DA000586-05.


Campbell, L.A., Richie, C.T., Zhang, Y., et al. In vitro modeling of HIV proviral activity in microglia. FEBS Journal. 2017;284(23):4096-4114. DOI:10.1111/febs.14293.

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This page was last updated August 2018

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    NIDA. (2018, August 7). A New Tool for Investigating HIV in the Brain. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2018/08/new-tool-investigating-hiv-in-brain

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