SCI-TECH & AGRI

Infection by closely related HIV strains possible

A REPORT of an individual infected with a second strain of HIV despite effective drug treatment following the first infection has researchers concerned.

``For the first time, we've shown it is possible for an individual to become infected with two closely related strains of HIV,'' says Bruce D. Walker, a researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Published in the journal Nature, these findings underscore the challenges vaccine developers face in creating a broadly effective vaccine against HIV. The first HIV vaccines may not prevent infection altogether, but rather may prevent HIV from causing disease by limiting the virus' ability to reproduce, explains Dr. Walker. This case shows that a hypothetical vaccine against one strain of HIV may not necessarily protect the vaccinee against other, closely related strains.

``The implications of superinfection for an individual with HIV/AIDS are not yet clear,'' says Anthony S. Fauci,, NIAID's director. ``However, there is little doubt what these new data mean in terms of public health: It is imperative that safer sex be practiced during each encounter, even when both partners are HIV-infected,'' he adds.

The new case involves a person whose HIV infection was kept in check for many months during structured treatment interruption (STI). In STI, antiviral therapies are frequently given during the early, acute stage of infection, but halted after the immune system has had time to adapt to the virus. Often, as in this case, a patient's immune system rebounds enough to keep HIV suppressed. ``This patient's immune response against HIV was really quite robust,'' says Dr. Walker. Thus, the researchers were perplexed when, after successfully suppressing HIV for close to one year, the patient's viral load suddenly shot upwards.

Despite several more attempts to interrupt therapy, the patient was unable to hold the virus to previously attained low levels.

The two strains differed in overall amino acid sequence by about 12 percent, ``about what we'd expect for two strains in North America,'' notes Dr. Walker. In comparison, the sequence difference between strains of various major subtypes, or clades, of HIV is about 30 percent. Although superinfection by strains from different clades has been reported previously, this is the first published report of infection by two strains from the same clade.

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