February 1997

Media Contacts: Sarah Goodwin, 404/727-3366 -
Kathi Ovnic, 404/727-9371 -

CHICAGO -- HIV-1 virus found in the female genital tract is produced in the vagina and is slightly different from, although related to, HIV-1 virus produced in the blood, according to a study by Emory University researchers. Jeffrey Lennox, M.D., Emory assistant professor of medicine (infectious diseases), conducted four different studies of the HIV-1 virus in vaginal secretions and determined that the virus was produced vaginally and was not simply leaking into vaginal secretions through the blood. He presented the results of his research at the 5th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Chicago on Feb. 2.

The research was part of the ongoing Emory Vaginal Ecology Study of HIV Infection, called the EVE project, in which Lennox and his colleagues are trying to determine why and in what amounts HIV-1 is present in vaginal secretions.

In order to exclude the possibility that HIV-1 virus leaks passively into the vaginal secretions from blood, Dr. Lennox first measured the amount of hemoglobin in vaginal secretions and the amount of virus in both vaginal secretions and in blood, then calculated what percentage of the virus in the vagina could BE directly due to blood in the vaginal secretions. For the vast majority of the women studied, the amount was less than 5 percent.

In a second test, Dr. Lennox studied women infected with the Hepatitis C virus, an RNA virus infection common in HIV-infected adults. In each woman there were more Hepatitis C viral particles in the blood than HIV particles. In vaginal secretions, however, HIV particles exceeded HCV particles. These results excluded passive leaking of HIV into vaginal secretions.

In a third study, he tested amino acid sequences from HIV virus found in the blood and in the vagina and found that in six out of eleven women the predominant HIV type in the vagina was different from that in the blood. Finally, Dr. Lennox cloned virus from the blood and from the vagina and found that the majority of the vaginal clones were very similar to one another, and less similar to the majority of plasma clones.

"All these lines of evidence suggest that HIV-1 virus is actively produced in the vagina and is not just a result of leakage into the vagina through the bloodstream," Dr. Lennox said.

"Studying HIV-1 in vaginal secretions is important for several reasons," he explained. "Since HIV-1 in the vagina is an important source of transmission to babies and to men in heterosexual relationships, obviously we want try to reduce the amount of that virus. This knowledge also is potentially important for vaccine developers. Most of the current HIV vaccine efforts are focused on viruses found in the blood, yet viruses in genital secretions are now the source of most transmitted viruses. If there are significant differences beween viruses in the blood and in genital secretions, people designing vaccines would need to take that into account."

Research for the EVE project is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Emory Medical Care Foundation and Roche Pharmaceuticals.


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