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Mayo researchers observe genetic fusion of human, animal cells -may help explain origin of AIDS

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Mayo Clinic genomics researchers are the first to demonstrate that mixing of genetic material can occur naturally, in a living body. The researchers have discovered conditions in which pig cells and human cells can fuse together in the body to yield hybrid cells that contain genetic material from both species and carry a swine virus similar to HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) that can infect normal human cells.

While the research does not answer the question of whether this infection can cause actual disease in humans, it does provide scientists with a new way to understand how viral infections can pass from animals to humans.

"What we found was completely unexpected," says Jeffrey Platt, M.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Transplantation Biology Program. "This observation helps explain how a retrovirus can jump from one species to another -- and that may speed discovery about the origin of diseases such as AIDS and SARS. The discovery also may help explain how cells in the circulation may become part of the solid tissue." The Mayo Clinic research appears in the online Express edition of the FASEB Journal. (www.fasebj.org) published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. The print article will appear in the March issue of the journal (volume 18, issue 3).

Known as "zoonosis or zoonotic infection," the movement of an infectious agent between animals and humans is of intense interest to those who study public health, infectious diseases, immunology and transplantation. Some viruses, such as influenza, are well known to pass from one species to another. Other viruses do not appear to easily cross species -- and yet do so under rare, unknown circumstances.

Scientists want to know how and why viruses cross species because zoonosis may underlie some of the most devastating diseases. For example, researchers have long believed the HIV virus that causes AIDS
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