The Nef protein of HIV-1 downregulates the cell surface co-receptor CD4 by hijacking the clathrin adaptor complex AP-2. The structural basis for the hijacking of AP-2 by Nef is revealed by a 2.9 Å crystal structure of Nef bound to the α and σ2 subunits of AP-2. Nef binds to AP-2 via its central loop (residues 149–179) and its core. The determinants for Nef binding include residues that directly contact AP-2 and others that stabilize the binding-competent conformation of the central loop. Residues involved in both direct and indirect interactions are required for the binding of Nef to AP-2 and for downregulation of CD4. These results lead to a model for the docking of the full AP-2 tetramer to membranes as bound to Nef, such that the cytosolic tail of CD4 is situated to interact with its binding site on Nef.
Infection by a pathogen, such as a bacterium or virus, activates both the innate immune response—which is immediate but not specific to the pathogen—and the adaptive immune response, which is stronger and specific to the pathogen. White blood cells called CD4+ T helper cells play an important role in the early stages of the adaptive immune response by helping to activate and regulate other white blood cells that go on to eradicate the pathogen.
HIV-1 is a retrovirus that infects immune cells that have the CD4 receptor on their surface, including CD4+ T helper cells. As the number of worker CD4+ T helper cells falls, the adaptive immune response gradually weakens, and the HIV-1 infected individual becomes increasingly susceptible to infection and disease. An individual is said to develop AIDS when either their CD4+ T helper cell count falls below 200 cells per microliter or they begin to experience specific diseases associated with the HIV-1 infection.
In an effort to prevent and treat AIDS, researchers have worked to understand the HIV-1 genome and have developed medicines that target the enzymatic activity of viral proteins involved in viral replication. When used in combination, these drugs have helped to reduce transmission of HIV-1, and also to reduce deaths from the disease. However, worries about side effects and drug resistance mean that there is a need to develop new drugs.
The HIV-1 genome codes for a number of accessory proteins, including a protein known as Nef that attacks the CD4+ T helper cells, removing the CD4 protein that gives the cells their name. This reduces the ability of the T cells to activate the immune system and allows the virus to spread. Nef acts by forming a complex with a protein called AP-2 in the T cells, and this complex then interacts with the CD4 proteins, causing them to be internalized and then destroyed inside the cells.
Ren et al. have now worked out the structure of the Nef:AP-2 complex at the molecular level and identified the amino acid residues within the Nef protein that interact with the AP-2 protein. This allowed Ren et al. to propose a detailed model of the interaction between the complex and the CD4 protein, and how this leads to the protein being destroyed. This information could be used to develop drugs that work by blocking the amino residues on AP-2 that bind to Nef. Moreover, since these sites are not susceptible to rapid mutations, such drugs are less likely to encounter the problem of drug resistance.