HIV gp41 is a metastable protein whose native conformation is maintained in the form of a heterodimer with gp120. The non-covalently associated gp41/gp120 complex forms a trimer on the virus surface. As gp120 engages with HIVs receptor, CD4, and coreceptor, CXCR4 or CCR5, gp41 undergoes several conformational changes resulting in fusion between the viral and cellular membranes. Several lipophilic and amphiphilic domains have been shown to be critical in that process. While the obvious function of gp41 in viral entry is well-established its role in cellular membrane fusion and the link with pathogenesis are only now beginning to appear. Recent targeting of gp41 via fusion inhibitors has revealed an important role of this protein not only in viral entry but also in bystander apoptosis and HIV pathogenesis. Studies by our group and others have shown that the phenomenon of gp41-mediated hemifusion initiates apoptosis in bystander cells and correlates with virus pathogenesis. More interestingly, recent clinical evidence suggests that gp41 mutants arising after Enfuvirtide therapy are associated with CD4 cell increase and immunological benefits. This has in turn been correlated to a decrease in bystander apoptosis in our in vitro as well as in vivo assays. Although a great deal of work has been done to unravel HIV-1 gp41-mediated fusion mechanisms, the factors that regulate gp41-mediated fusion versus hemifusion and the mechanism by which hemifusion initiates bystander apoptosis are not fully understood. Further insight into these issues will open new avenues for drug development making gp41 a critical anti-HIV target both for neutralization and virus attenuation.
Keywords: HIV, gp41, fusion, lipophilic, apoptosis, antiviral, lipophilic and amphiphilic domains, bystander apoptosis, Enfuvirtide therapy, in vitro as well as in vivo assays, HIV-1 gp41-mediated fusion mechanisms, ENVELOPE GLYCOPROTEIN
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