When individuals infected with HIV become infected with a second strain of the virus, the two viral strains can exchange genetic information, creating a third, recombinant strain of the virus. It is known that the presence of multiple viral strains, called superinfection, frequently leads to a loss of immune control of viral levels. Now a study from the Partners AIDS Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital (PARC/MGH) shows that how and where viral strains swap DNA may be determined by the immune response against the original infecting strain. Their report will appear in the Journal of Experimental Medicine and has been released online.
"The implication that recombination events are selected by immune responses identifies a new mechanism for the virus to escape the patient's immune system, which would present additional challenges to vaccine design," says Hendrik Streeck, MD, PhD, of PARC/MGH, one of the paper's lead authors. "This finding also has worldwide implications for the development of more complex strains of HIV."
Part of the immune system's response against HIV is carried out by HIV-specific CD8 T cells, also called cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs), which can identify and kill virus-infected cells. Previous PARC/MGH research showed that the effectiveness of the CTL response varies depending on which version or allele of an immune system molecule called HLA Class I an individual has inherited. The current study was undertaken to investigate why an HIV-positive research participant known to have a powerfully protective Class I allele called HLA-B27 began to experience rapid increases in viral levels much sooner than would have been expected.
An examination of blood samples from this individual revealed that his immune response against HIV had predictably controlled the virus for about a year and a half after he was first diagnosed. The effective CTL response was primarily directed against a short segment
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Massachusetts General Hospital