By Wendy Sarubbi | May 24, 2010 12:00 am

ORLANDO, May 25, 2010 — A dormant human gene could be the key to fighting HIV, says Dr. Alexander Cole, associate professor of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences.

Dr. Cole has spent the last 17 years investigating the body’s natural antibiotics called “antimicrobial peptides” that fight bacteria and viruses. Wednesday, he spoke at the College of Medicine’s Luminary Series lecture about how such natural antibiotics could be used in the fight against diseases such as Staphylococcus aureus infections and HIV.

Antimicrobial peptides are found inside the nose and in the female reproductive tract. These small proteins are strong and stable – they survive even when boiled – and they provide the body’s first line of defense against viruses and bacteria. In the case of the HIV, the peptides keep the virus from binding to and eventually invading immune system T-cells. The key to preventing HIV transmission from person to person, Dr. Cole said, is stopping the virus before it infects a healthy cell. Dr. Cole spoke on his ongoing studies to develop a peptide called “retrocyclin” that is remarkably active against HIV. The retrocyclin gene is dormant in the human body and thus does not produce the peptide. However, he is able to make retrocyclin peptides in the laboratory, and these peptides are undergoing advanced preclinical studies to determine their activity and safety profiles. The key, he said, is finding ways to create sufficient quantities of this disease-fighting peptide either in the lab or genetically. His goal, he says, is to develop a product such as a retrocyclin-containing topical gel or an extended-release ring that would provide women with a means of protection against HIV.

“The face of HIV has changed,” Dr. Cole said, explaining that the highest incidence of the disease worldwide is in Sub-Saharan Africa, where in many countries the adult infection rate exceeds 15 percent. In Sub-Saharan Africa, HIV is transmitted largely through heterosexual activity and infected women outnumber men 2-to-1.

Dr. Cole has received more than $8 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He was the first UCF professor to receive a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That $100,000 grant is funding research on the genetic production of retrocyclin.

Dr. Cole has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and has been a grant reviewer for several agencies, including the NIH, the Welcome Trust and the National Science Foundation. He was an assistant professor at UCLA’s Department of Medicine before joining UCF in 2003. This year, he served as the College of Medicine’s module director for the first year M.D. course, HB-3: Human Body, Health and Disease.

The Luminary Series, held at the Orlando Museum of Art, is sponsored by Dean Mead Attorneys at Law and by Fifth Third Bank.

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