Researchers seek to solve mystery of natural HIV control

An international, multi-institutional research consortium is seeking to discover how a few HIV-infected individuals are naturally able to suppress replication of the virus. The Elite Controller Collaborative Study (http://www.mgh.harvard.edu/aids/hiv_elite_controllers.asp), the first large-scale haplotype-mapping study in people infected with HIV, is searching for genetic factors that may explain these individuals' unique ability to control the virus without treatment, sometimes as long as 25 years after infection.

"If we could discover how these individuals can coexist with this virus without damage to their immune system and could find a way to replicate that ability in others, we would have a recipe for halting the HIV epidemic," says Bruce Walker, MD, director of Partners AIDS Research Center (PARC) at Massachusetts General Hospital and an initial organizer of the Elite Controller Collaborative Study. Walker discussed the project in a media briefing today at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto.

Most people infected with HIV cannot control replication of the virus with their immune systems alone. Unless antiviral medications are used, the virus continues to reproduce until it overwhelms the CD4 T helper cells, suppressing the immune response and leading to AIDS. In the early 1990s, it was recognized that a small minority of HIV-positive people remained healthy and did not progress to AIDS despite many years of infection. The term "long-term nonprogressors" was used to refer to this group. With today's more sensitive techniques for measuring viral levels in the bloodstream, individuals who are able to maintain low levels of HIV replication can be identified soon after their infection is diagnosed. Some of these viremic controllers can maintain viral loads below 2,000 copies/ml, while an even smaller group, called elite controllers, have viral loads t

Contact: Sue McGreevey
Massachusetts General Hospital

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