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Success of HIV may depend in its mutations

Researchers observe that one reason AIDS may progress as a disease is the human immunodeficiency virus mutates so rapidly within the human body that it confounds the already-weakened immune system's ability to defend against it. In addition, conventional tests used to determine how well a person// infected with HIV can mount an immune defense can be misleading, the researchers, from Harvard Medical School's Center for Blood Research, have found.

"The immune system needs to evolve along with the virus and this evolution becomes difficult because it is in a milieu of immune deficiency," researcher Premlata Shankar told United Press International. We overstate the immune response because the virus used to test a person's response has many regions to which an immune response has already been developed.

As reported in the November issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, although the immune system's memory-based component might continue to resist the strain of HIV it first encountered -- or strains used in laboratory tests -- subsequent viral mutations weaken its ability to mount an effective defense.

Although HIV's ability to mutate rapidly has been well documented, the effects of those mutations on an infected individual have not been studied thoroughly. So Shankar and colleagues examined the immune system's killer cell responses to mutated forms of HIV taken from infected people at different stages of their infection. They found the killer cells from patients with more advanced infections could not destroy the mutated virus, even though they still could neutralize common laboratory strains.

In contrast, killer cells from people with less-advanced HIV infections could destroy both the lab test strains and their own mutated forms. "The side-by-side comparison of cellular responses to laboratory strains and autologous (mutated after infection) strains at different disease stages is new," immunologist Beth Jamieson, w
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