Study: Aggressive HIV strain becomes AIDS in three years

A strain of HIV has been discovered in Cuba that can become AIDS in three years.
A strain of HIV has been discovered in Cuba that can become AIDS in three years. | Courtesy of

An aggressive strain of HIV discovered in patients in Cuba mutates into AIDS in just three years, researchers reported recently in the journal EBioMedicine.

Normally, HIV first anchors itself to human cells before settling. The virus uses co-receptors (proteins that are part of the cell membrane) as anchor points. Most HIV strains also use co-receptors called CCR5 as anchor points before changing the anchor points to CXCR4, which leads to AIDS. Typically, a person will remain healthy for several years before the virus changes anchor points.

The particularly aggressive HIV strain found in Cuba uses CXCR4 anchor points early in the infection, which minimizes the amount of healthy time a person has before being diagnosed with AIDS.

Scientists at KU Leuven's Laboratory for Clinical and Epidemiological Virology tested blood samples from 73 patients who were recently infected; 21 did not have AIDS, and 52 did. The researchers compared the blood-test results from 22 patients who contracted HIV, then lived through a typical time interval before an AIDS diagnosis.

The patients with the aggressive HIV strain have a large amount of the virus and RANTES, which are defensive molecules that are naturally in human antibodies. RANTES defend the body by anchoring to CCR5, which could potentially inhibit HIV from binding to the cell.

The patients with more RANTES show that HIV could no longer attach to the cell because RANTES already had taken the CCR5 anchor points. This does not help the body defeat the virus. Instead, HIV attaches to CXCR4 and becomes AIDS.

This particularly aggressive HIV strain developed through the presence of combined pieces of various HIV subtypes, including a protease (from HIV subtype D) that works quickly, so unprotected sexual intercourse with multiple partners should be avoided to reduce the odds of contracting more than one strain of HIV, scientists said.

This strain is expected to hamper efforts at eliminating HIV and AIDS from the disease landscape, as patients can become infected with AIDS before they even realize they have HIV.