HIV Database Speeds Cure Hunt
June 9, 2003
In New Mexico, two Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers have spent countless hours keeping an online database on HIV updated. "HIV is really heavily studied, but still 50 million people have died or are dying from it," said Bette Korber. The database lets researchers look at the genetic makeup of a strain of the virus and compare it with other strains -- at last count there were 86,000, with more evolving all the time. Researchers can determine what part of the world a particular strain came from and instantly find genetic markers, literature and other information to speed their work. The database is free to researchers, and new information is added frequently.Adapted from:
The database has improved researchers' abilities to solve many problems HIV poses, said Jean Carr, a senior research scientist at the Henry Jackson Foundation of Maryland, which does medical research for the military. Before the database, tracking individual HIV strains was hard because different countries often had different names for the same strain. By centralizing the information, Korber and colleague Carla Kuiken inadvertently created a central terminology all HIV researchers use, Carr said. "It's thanks to the Los Alamos database that the HIV nomenclature became clear," said Carr.
Every weekday Korber wakes up at 4 a.m., finds new scientific papers about HIV, and enters them into the database until about 7 a.m., when she starts her workday.
Los Alamos scientists created the original HIV database in 1986 as part of human genome mapping project. When Korber took over, she improved its search functions. Kuiken, who has helped with the HIV database since the mid-1990s, cloned it in the past two years to be used with hepatitis C.
Because they mutate so quickly, both diseases can render a drug useless by mutating against it in about six weeks. Kuiken said the ultimate goal is a cure or vaccine. "We try to come up with tools that can help researchers find critical information," Kuiken said. "We even take requests for new search tools. Anything that saves time speeds up the research. That's important."