How to get to JNCASR

New Delhi, December 6th (IPS) - India has been able to drastically curb the spread of the HI virus over the past ten years. However, scientists from the South Asian country are concerned about the emergence of new strains of viruses that can cause the immune deficiency disease AIDS.

The United Nations Joint Program on HIV / AIDS (UNAIDS) praised India in its 2012 report for halving the number of newly infected adults between 2000 and 2009. There are currently 2.4 million Indians infected with HIV. One million have access to anti-retroviral therapy (ART).

However, the subcontinent is faced with the fact that the most common type I (HIV-1) HIV virus is rapidly developing. HIV-1 subtype C accounts for almost 99 percent of all AIDS infections in India. It is also common in China, South Africa, and Brazil. Scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Center (JNCASR) in Bangalore recently found five new strains of HIV-1 subtype C, two of which appear to be more infectious than the traditional strain.

"The study is the first of its kind to find that an important HIV-1 family is undergoing evolutionary changes," said Ranga Udaya Kumar, a medical professor in the centre's molecular biology department. Although the center's studies have not yet proven that the new strains are particularly pathogenic, the researcher says there is every reason to believe that they are more likely to cause infections.

The results of the JNCASR investigation were published by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the November issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

New strains produce more 'daughter viruses'

"The new strains of the virus appear to contain a stronger catalyst," said Mahesh Bachu, who led the center's research team on the study. A virus with a stronger catalyst in its DNA will obviously produce more 'daughter viruses' and spread faster. "The laboratory tests have shown that the new HIV strains produce more daughter viruses than normal strains," said Bachu.

Retroviruses that cause AIDS multiply by transferring their ribonucleic acid (RNA) into DNA by an enzyme called 'reverse transcriptase', which enters the host cell and is reproduced with the cell and its daughters.

"People infected with the new HIV strains not only produce more daughter viruses, but they also appear to be carrying more viruses," said Bachu. The study is based on the evaluation of 163 blood samples that came from hospitals in several parts of India.

The study also included staff from the YRG Center for AIDS Research and Education in Chennai, the St. John Academy of Health Sciences in Bangalore, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience in Bangalore, and the AIIMS Medical Institute in New Delhi.

The clinical results have been corroborated by laboratory tests using viral, immune and molecular strategies, Bachu said. "A similar process of viral evolution has also been observed in South Africa, China and southern Brazil. These countries share the same HIV-1 family."

Significantly, these new strains were not yet common when Bachu and his team first observed them in studies from 2000 to 2003. At the time, they only made up one to two percent of each of the five variants.

Occurrence has increased within a few years

A decade later, three of the five new HIV-1 groups have multiplied. Bachu emphasizes that patients infected with the newer 4-kappaB strain have more plasma viruses in their blood than those who were infected with the existing 3-kappaB strain.

"It is possible that a higher viral load enables the 4-kappaB strains to be transmitted more quickly. Thus, the new viruses spread faster." According to Kumar, the findings have raised new questions about virus resilience and disease control. The main concern in India is whether the new HIV strains can change the clinical picture of HIV infections in the country. (End / IPS / ck / 2012)