Scientists find variant of HIV in gorillas

Scientists find variant of HIV in gorillas

New Delhi: Not only chimpanzees, but gorillas too may harbour viruses that mutate to form the deadly Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), that leads to AIDS. Scientists from France report in Tuesday’s edition of Nature Medicine, a new kind of the HIV-1, the far more lethal and widespread variant, isolated from a Cameroonian woman.

Typically the HIV-1 traces its origins to West African chimpanzees, but this discovery, the scientists say is evidence that simian viruses from other primates may also find ways to modify over generations and jump onto humans.

Though the researchers haven’t mapped the prevalence of this new variant in the human populations, they don’t expect it to be a cause of concern yet. As of now, it has only made harder, the search for a vaccine effective against all kinds of HIV.

“The discovery of this novel HIV-1 lineage highlights the continuing need to watch closely for the emergence of new HIV variants, particularly in western central Africa, the origin of all existing HIV-1 groups," the authors say in their report.

AIDS, a pandemic disease killed at least 3 lakh across the globe between 2001 and 2007, according to the United Nations. Though mortality figures aren’t available for India, the government says atleast 2.3 million in India were HIV positive as of 2007.

HIV, which was implicated in the debilitating and lethal AIDS in 1983, has so far thwarted efforts at a vaccine; widely acknowledged to be the only effective way to stop the spread of AIDS.

This is primarily due to the virus’ ability to rapidly make subtle changes to itself and get past the body’s immune system and inflict damage. It is to predict the virus’ next moves, and thus have a shot at preparing a vaccine, that scientists study their origins and structural changes over generations.

The HIV exists in two broad categories called HIV-1 and HIV-2. The latter exists in less than 3% of the world population, is far less likely to progress to full-blown AIDS and traces its origins to the xx monkey.

The HIV-1 is further classified into three groups, or types, as they are scientifically known: M (major), the most pandemic, and most commonly found even in India, and the much rarer O (outlier) and N(non M, non-O). The new strain is distinct from all of these and merits being in a different group called P, the researchers said.

Though it’s confirmed that the new kind of virus is prevalent in humans, the scientists say there’s no cause of immediate concern yet. “This only throws new light on the complexity of the HIV. We have no evidence yet of it being more virulent or widespread," said Jean-Christophe Plantier, one of the authors of the study, in an email to Mint.

Plantier, who is part of a larger group of scientists studying the genetic diversity of the HIV added that the group’s next steps were to ascertain the spread and virulence of this virus strain, determine at what stage and how the virus strain jumped from gorilla to humans and importantly study how the virus responded to treatment.

Other experts say Plantier’s findings are important, but only shows that a vaccine for AIDS will become even more elusive. “It’s significant work, but this has only broadened the scope for a comprehensive vaccine," said Shahid Jameel, an expert on the origins of HIV, at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi, “ Current vaccine development is on at the subtype level. M, for instance has 11 subtypes. So it’s still to early to gauge the medical or therapeutic use of this find."