By Jean Johnson for Medtech1
Even at the microscopic level of genetics and the HIV virus, it takes two to tango. The question researchers posed was: Why are some individuals of the same geographical ancestry – like European Americans for example – less likely than others in the same group to become infected with HIV?
In genetics speak, the HIV virus infects a host cell via a doorway into the cell through which a major protein receptor in the HIV virus can enter. But, a study funded by a branch of the National Institutes of Health concluded that people who have a higher number of a potent HIV-blocking protein at their cell “doors,” are less likely to contract the virus.
In Jan. 6 issue of Science Express, an online publication of the journal Science, researchers concluded that “individual risk of acquiring HIV and experiencing rapid disease progression is not uniform within populations” because of the variation in the number of copies of the HIV-blocking protein in the genetic make-up.
Scientists analyzed blood samples from 4,300 HIV positive and negative people of different geographical ancestry and found that the instance of HIV-blocking proteins was not uniform in each group. They believe that this discovery could lead to screening tests for susceptibility and then subsequently to the use of vaccine trials and treatment regimes, as well as further studies.
HIV-positive author and Portland resident, Tom Spanbauer, was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and in 1996 at the age of 48 Spanbauer was closer to death’s door than he likes to remember.
“One night I got up to turn the furnace on because I was cold, and I collapsed,” Spanbauer recalled from his old Victorian home that could use a coat of paint. “At the hospital they first passed it off as the flu, but eventually they realized it was AIDS.” The timing was right for Spanbauer, though. “It was just four or five months after they had come out with this new cocktail of anti-retrovirals, and I was one of the lucky ones.”
Still, as far as the latest discovery under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health goes, Spanbauer is cautious. His large brown eyes have glints of amber, and reflect both kindness and sorrow. “The thing is that my drugs cost $2500 a month at U.S. prices and even in Canada they would cost $710,” he said. “The point is that the drug companies are making a lot of money on this business, so there’s not that much interest doing research that might lead to a cure for AIDS.”
Spanbauer’s voice is soft, without bitterness, and the afternoon light shines on his blonde hair that’s graying at the temples. “In other words, we’ve immediately gone from a medical discussion to a political one. It’s sort of like that old Ronald Reagan quote about ‘welfare queens in designer jeans’ you know. AIDS has such a stigma in our society and all.”