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Rare Find: Uncommon Genes Seem to Slow Progress of AIDS
By Kate Dalke

Researchers have identified certain types of genes in the human immune system that are associated with a slow progression of AIDS. The findings, if confirmed by larger studies, could be used to determine whether a patient should receive aggressive treatment in the early stages of disease.

The most protective gene variants, all in HLA (for human leukocyte antigen) genes, were also among the rarest in the study. According to the researchers, HIV has likely evolved to attack the most common genetic variations in the human immune system in order to escape detection from the greatest number of hosts. Having rare variations has therefore become advantageous for humans fighting infection.

Among men in the study, African-Americans—an underrepresented group in the study population—were more likely to carry the rare, advantageous variations and had lower amounts of HIV in their bodies.

The study included nearly 1,000 men who were part of the Chicago-based Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS), a study of HIV infection and AIDS in homosexual and bisexual men that was started in 1984.

HLA genes help the body detect pathogens and guide its immune response to HIV and other viruses and bacteria. Yet these genes vary greatly from person to person, making it difficult to pinpoint specific variants linked to disease susceptibility.

Steven Wolinsky of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago led the study. Using a new statistical tool, the researchers were able to determine which groups of HLA genes are best at keeping HIV infection at bay.

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Trachtenberg, E. et al. Advantage of rare HLA supertype in HIV disease progression. Published online in Nature Medicine (June 22, 2003).

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