Scientists discover emergence of new HIV strains

In a path-breaking research conducted by the HIV-AIDS laboratory at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), scientists have found the emergence and expansion of three to five new strains of the HIV-1 virus rapidly replacing the standard viral strain.

The study is the first of its kind to identify a major family of HIV-1 undergoing an evolutionary modification. It is said that the human immunodeficiency virus type I (HIV-1) has been undergoing a process of viral evolution in India over the past decade and possibly in other parts of the world too.

Speaking to Deccan Herald, Dr Udaykumar Ranga, Professor, JNCASR said they found the virus strain was more infectious compared to the standard viral stain.

"Although the study is inconclusive in terms of the pathogenic character of the strain as it is too early, it can be said that the virus strain has a stronger viral promoter compared to the standard viral stain.  Initially, we thought that only one per cent of the population has been infected, but now it is around 30 per cent,” he added. 

In a statement issued by Dr Ranga, it was said that in the laboratory experiments the new HIV strains make more daughter viruses as compared to the standard viral strains. Additionally, people infected with the new HIV strains seem to contain more viruses in their blood. The data have been generated from several individual hospitals from different parts of the country.

The work consisted of an 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. Additionally, scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, USA also have a role in this work.

The clinical findings have been substantiated by a quantum of laboratory experiments using viral, immune and molecular strategies. 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.

It is, however, critical to understand that the experimental data are generated only through a cross-section and therefore should be considered only as suggestive but not conclusive. The 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. 

JNCASR is presently making arrangements to collaborate with five other research institutes in India - YRG CARE, Chennai; National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai; St. John’s Hospital, Bangalore; National AIDS Research Institute, Pune and AIIMS, New Delhi to conduct an observational clinical study to examine whether the new HIV strains are indeed more infectious in the clinical setting and if they are likely to modulate disease progression to Aids.

The study raises 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 (UNAIDS Global Report: 2010).

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