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More Clues Emerge on How HIV Infects Women

Virus can invade after breaking down the protective barrier in women's reproductive tract, study finds

THURSDAY, April 8 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers have identified a previously unknown way that women are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

HIV can break down and penetrate the epithelial cell barrier (designed to keep out infection) in the intestinal and female genital tract during intercourse, according to the study published online April 8 in PLoS Pathogens.

Prior to this study, many scientists believed that HIV invaded women's reproductive tract after some sort of trauma, such as a small tear during intercourse. This is the first time researchers have pinpointed HIV itself as the possible culprit.

The breakdown in protection appears to be caused by inflammatory factors produced when HIV binds to epithelial cells. The tight junctions between the protective cells are destroyed, which gives HIV access to the inside of the body in order to infect immune cells, the Canadian study authors noted.

"This is a significant step forward in defining where prevention strategies, such as microbicides and vaccines, need to focus. Instead of trying to stop HIV from infecting the target cells underneath the [protective barrier], we need to think about ways to stop the virus from attaching to epithelial cells themselves," lead researcher Charu Kaushic, an associate professor in the Centre for Gene Therapeutics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said in a university news release.

Women account for half of the 40 million people worldwide infected with HIV.

More information

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more about women and HIV.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: McMaster University, news release, April 8, 2010

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