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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 20, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 08
New aggressive HIV strain found in Cuba
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New aggressive HIV strain found in Cuba

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A new aggressive HIV strain that appears to develop into AIDS within three years of infection has been identified in some patients in Cuba. This new finding seems to cast doubt on reports by British scientists that HIV is evolving into less virulent and less contagious forms.

Researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium identified the new HIV strain. Their research has been published in the journal EBioMedicine.

For the study, the researchers analyzed blood samples of 73 recently infected patients. Among the group, 52 already had full-blown AIDS, while the remaining 21 were HIV-positive but the virus had not yet progressed. The researchers compared their findings to blood samples of 22 AIDS patients who had more common strains of the virus.

While prompt treatment with antiretroviral drugs can contain HIV almost indefinitely, without treatment HIV infection usually progresses to AIDS within 5 to 10 years, according to Anne-Mieke Vandamme, a medical professor at Belgium's University of Leuven.

'So this group of [Cuban] patients that progressed very fast, they were all recently infected,' Vandamme told Voice of America. 'And we know that because they had been HIV-negative tested one or a maximum two years before.'

None of the patients had received treatment for the virus, and all of the patients infected with the mutated strain of HIV developed AIDS within three years. In two other groups of HIV patients the disease progressed normally. Cuban health officials alerted the scientists when they noticed the unusually aggressive advance of the disease in some patients.

While fast progression of HIV to AIDS is usually the result of the patient's weak immune system rather than the particular subtype of HIV, the Cuban case is different, researchers say.

'Here we had a variant of HIV that we found only in the group that was progressing fast. Not in the other two groups. We focused in on this variant [and] tried to find out what was different. And we saw it was a recombinant of three different subtypes.'

HIV normally infects cells by attaching itself to what is called a co-receptor, and the transition to AIDS usually occurs when the virus switches - after many years - from co-receptor CCR5 to co-receptor CXCR4. The new strain, now named CRF19, makes the switch much faster.

The researchers found that patients with CRF19 had higher levels of the virus in their blood compared with those who had more common strains.

Researchers suspect that this aggressive form of HIV occurs when fragments of other subsets of the virus cling to each other through an enzyme that makes the virus more powerful and easily replicated in the body.

The variant has also been observed in Africa, but in too few cases to be fully studied. Researchers said the strain is more widespread in Cuba.

While the aggressive form of HIV responds to most antiretroviral drugs, people may not realize they have AIDS until it is too late for treatment to do them any good. Vandamme warned that people having unprotected sex with multiple partners should be tested for HIV early and often.

An earlier study at the University of Oxford in Britain - released for World AIDS Day 2014 - said that as HIV evolves, it takes longer to replicate itself, and therefore it becomes less easily transmitted to new hosts. It also takes longer for HIV infections to become symptomatic.

The Oxford research team reached its conclusion by comparing the progress of HIV infections in Botswana, which has dealt with the HIV epidemic for a long time, and South Africa, where HIV arrived a decade later.

The Belgian study may have found the proverbial 'exception that proves the rule.' In other words, while it may be true that HIV is evolving less aggressive strains, Belgian researchers could have identified a freak strain of HIV whose evolution runs counter to the general trend.

In any case, the news indicates that hopes for a more easily-managed virus may be premature.

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