Following the discovery of an unusually weak inflammatory response to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, HIV, in the genitals of some African female sex workers who are naturally protected from infection of the virus, scientists believe they may have discovered an important clue that could influence future HIV prevention efforts.
Results of a long-term study just published in the journal PLoS ONE, said over the course of a 15-year study which involved women from Benin Republic in West Africa and Zimbabwe in South Africa, researchers found that when some of these women are exposed to HIV, the immune-system cells in their genitals, produced fewer inflammatory molecules than the cells in women infected with the virus.
Spokesperson for the research team, Dr. Michel Roger, of the University of Montreal Hospital Centre and its microbiology and immunology department, observed that in Africa where the discovery was made, women represent over 60 percent of HIV cases, even as the proportion continues to increase.
”Studying women who are naturally resistant to the virus enables researchers to identify interesting information in terms of developing vaccinations or microbicide gels that could prevent transmission of HIV,” Roger noted.
Although these molecules are usually helpful by activating lymphocyte T-cells that destroy viruses, HIV actually uses these T-cells to invade people’s bodies, the researchers said. Fewer T-cells means fewer target cells available for the virus to use.
The researchers also found the women’s immune response in their genitals — where the virus entered their body — was different from their body’s response once the virus was in their bloodstream.
The study concluded that a better way to stop the spread of HIV would be to block the virus from entering the body, rather than fight it once it had already invaded.
According to Roger, “AIDS vaccination research has entirely focused on the bloodstream and this approach has been a failure. Our research shows that the immune response is different at the site of the infection, and that we should turn to the entry points in order to find a means for blocking the virus.”