Bottlenecking HIV

Illustration of two faces

One of the greatest challenges in fighting HIV is how fast it mutates.

One who is infected with HIV usually has a vast library of different viruses that could vary in their sensitivity to drugs or vaccines. 

HIV faces a genetic "bottleneck" when the virus is transmitted from one person to another. Because of the bottleneck, most of the time during heterosexual transmission, only one virus or virus-infected cell makes it through to establish the new infection.

Emory researchers have found that the bottleneck is disrupted when the at-risk partner has an inflammatory genital infection. The infection compromises normally protective mucosal barriers, allowing multiple viral varieties through the bottleneck. 

The results, published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Public Library of Science Pathogens, explain why other sexually transmitted diseases make people more susceptible to HIV infection. They also identify a window of time when a still-elusive HIV vaccine could control the virus, says team leader Eric Hunter (pathology). 

"Very early on after initial infection, the virus is almost homogenous," Hunter says. "If the immune system could contain the virus at that point, there might be a better chance to eliminate it.

The more we know about the early stages of infection, the more likely it is we could  identify ways to intervene at that critical time."

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