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Antigen, meet antibody

If they made a movie about retroviruses, the main character would resemble the shape-shifting cyborg in Terminator 2 - the one that could morph into any character. Retroviruses are like that in the human body. They sneak into our blood stream, hide inside our immune system undetected and then wait until it's time to strike.

From a virus point of view, it's evolution at its finest, says Jose´ Torres, an associate professor of medical microbiology and immunology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

"The body can't identify retroviruses as foreign, because they integrate themselves into the host's DNA," he says, almost admiringly. "Every organism wants to replicate; viruses can do so without interference from the immune system."

For humans, however, it's problematic. Viruses cause everything from AIDS to herpes zoster the sniffles to certain cancers.

Their complex structure makes them rewarding research subjects. Torres has his sights set on T-cell lymphotropic virus (HTLV-1), a retrovirus that causes T-cell leukemia, a rare and difficult-to-treat cancer of the blood cells. With a grant from the American Cancer Society, he aims to develop a vaccine for the virus within three years.


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