Findings have been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry

The HIV-AIDS laboratory at the city-based Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) has found that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type I (HIV-1) has been undergoing a process of evolution in India over the past decade and possibly in other parts of the world.

The study — with 165 samples — conducted from 2010 to 2011 by a group of scientists led by Professor Ranga Uday Kumar of the Molecular Biology and Genetics Unit of the centre has been published in the November 7th issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, accessible at http://www.jbc.org/content/early/2012/11/06/jbc.M112.397158.abstract.Professor Kumar told The Hindu that the scientists found the emergence and expansion of three to five new strains of HIV-1 rapidly replacing the standard viral strain. “While we believe these new strains can be more infectious, our study does not show that the strains are more infectious or pathogenic. However, the study is the first of its kind to identify that a major family of HIV-1 undergoing an evolutionary modification,” he claimed.

The work involved active collaboration with several research institutes and hospitals that specialise in HIV management, including the YRG Centre for AIDS Research and Education (YRG CARE), Chennai; St. John’s National Academy of Health Sciences, Bangalore; Freedom Foundation, Bangalore; Seva Free Clinic, Bangalore; Chest and Maternity Centre, Bangalore; National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences, (Nimhans), Bangalore; and the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (Aiims), New Delhi.

Scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and National Institutes of Health, U.S., have also played a role in this work, he said.

“The new viral strains appear to contain a stronger viral promoter. In the laboratory experiments, the new HIV strains make more daughter viruses [multiplied] as compared to the standard viral strains,” he said.

“Additionally, people infected with the new HIV strains seem to contain more of the virus in their blood. The data have been generated from several individual hospitals from different parts of the country. The clinical findings have been substantiated by a quantum of laboratory experiments using viral, immune and molecular strategies,” he said.

A similar process of viral evolution has also been observed in other countries such as South Africa, China and southern Brazil. All these countries have the same family of HIV-1 as India, Professor Kumar said.

Not conclusive

The experimental data was generated only through a cross-sectional analysis (from a single time point) and not a longitudinal analysis.

“The data, therefore, should be considered only suggestive and not conclusive. In fact, scientists believe that the new viral strains of HIV are smarter in making more daughter viruses thereby improving their chances of transmission to new hosts but they are not likely to be promoting faster development of AIDS,” he explained.

Collaboration

The JNCASR is collaborating with YRG CARE; National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai; St. John’s Hospital, Bangalore; National AIDS Research Institute, Pune; and Aiims — to conduct an observational clinical study to examine if the new HIV strains are indeed more infectious in the clinical setting and if they are likely to modulate disease progression to AIDS.

A press release from the JNCASR said the study raised several questions with serious implications for the viral fitness, evolution and disease management. “The most important of all the concerns is the possibility that the new HIV strains altering the landscape of the HIV demographics in India. In the recent past, the rate of viral expansion has slowed or even declined in several global regions, including India, according to the UNAIDS Global Report: 2010,” it said.