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Insight Into The Origins Of The Aids Epidemic May Offer New Treatment Approaches


Medical Research Council (MRC) scientists have uncovered an important clue to understanding the origins of the AIDS epidemic. The work suggests that harnessing natural mechanisms of resistance to HIV infection might provide new methods for combating AIDS.

The research team at the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research pinpointed crucial differences in a gene found in rhesus monkeys that can prevent HIV infection, and its human counterpart, that cannot.

The differences indicate that HIV infection would not have become established in the human population if the form of the gene present in certain monkeys had also been present in humans. More importantly, the studies reveal that only a single change to the human gene is needed to enable it to interfere with the replication process of the HIV virus and prevent infection.

Lead scientist, Dr Jonathan Stoye, said: “This discovery has significant implications for the development of effective gene therapy to combat AIDS. “In theory, it should be possible to take cells from an HIV-infected individual, make them resistant to HIV infection with the modified gene and reintroduce them into the patient. These cells could then block progression to AIDS.” “Alternatively we could seek for drugs that activate the human gene against HIV.”

The research findings are published in full in this week’s edition of Current Biology.

According to the latest UNAIDS figures, at the end of 2004, 39.4 million people worldwide – 37.2 million adults and 2.2 million children younger than 15 years – are living with HIV/AIDS.

HIV stands for ’human immunodeficiency virus’. HIV is a retrovirus that infects cells of the human immune system and destroys or impairs their function. Infection with this virus results in the progressive depletion of the immune system, leading to ’immune deficiency’, or AIDS. AIDS stands for ’acquired immunodeficiency syndrome’ and describes the collection of symptoms and infections associated with acquired deficiency of the immune system.

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