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It takes more than a little nerve these days to take on HIV research, when so many of the world's scientists have been at it for years. But research student Yael Wexler Cohen, who works in the lab of Prof. Yechiel Shai of the Weizmann Institute's Biological Chemistry Department, isn't fazed by such challenges.
In the process of HIV infection, the outer envelope of the virus fuses with the cell membrane of an immune system T cell – the very type of cell sworn to protect the body from foreign invaders. The virus then mixes its genetic material in with the cell's genes. These genes take over the cell's activities, forcing it to churn out copies of the virus, which then break out of the membrane and go off to invade other cells.
"As a child, I was curious about nature. When I grew up, I became a professional dancer, and my curiosity then focused on the body and how it functions normally and in disease."
In Shai's lab, Wexler Cohen investigates a viral envelope protein called gp41 that facilitates the virus's penetration of the cell membrane. In her attempts to understand that process in detail, Wexler Cohen works with some devious versions of fragments of that protein. Revealing the nuts and bolts of this stage of HIV infection might point the way toward methods to hinder the process; indeed, this research has already identified a number of gp41-derived peptides that could potentially block gp41. These substances could, in the future, become the basis of drugs that might, at last, be able to halt HIV in its tracks.
"When I gave up dancing, I decided to continue to follow my curiosity. That is exactly what the Weizmann Institute Graduate School has enabled me to do."
Yael Wexler Cohen’s research in the lab of Prof. Yechiel Shai is supported by the Robert Koch Minerva Center for Research in Autoimmune Disease; the Prostate Cancer Research Fund; and the Eugene and Delores Zemsky Charitable Foundation Inc. Prof. Shai is the incumbent of the Harold S. and Harriet B. Brady Professorial Chair in Cancer Research.