In small study, aggressive HIV strain identified in Cuba

A strain of HIV that progresses to full-blown AIDS within three years if left untreated has become “epidemic” among newly infected patients in Cuba who reported having unprotected sex with multiple partners, according to a study published this week by international researchers working with patients and doctors on the Caribbean island nation, as Daniel CHang and Nora Gamez Torres report in The Bellingham Herald.

The strain of human immunodeficiency virus – a combination of three subtypes of the virus – progresses so fast, researchers at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven said they worry that patients infected with the mutated virus may not seek antiretroviral therapy until it’s too late.

The finding, published this week in the medical journal EBioMedicine, raises concerns among U.S. AIDS researchers who worry that mutated HIV viruses are more difficult to diagnose, might eventually become resistant to therapy and could challenge efforts to develop a vaccine.

Hector Bolivar, a physician and infectious disease specialist with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said the HIV research community has long known about the virus’ capacity to mutate and create new versions.

More than 60 strains of HIV type 1 exist in the world because of mutations.

Anne-Mieke Vandamme, a professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, and a team of researchers reported that they traveled to Cuba after clinicians on the island reported an increasing number of HIV infections that rapidly progressed to AIDS.

To conduct the study, Vandamme and her team recruited patients at the Institute for Tropical Medicine Pedro Kouri in Havana who had tested negative for HIV less than three years before diagnosis and who had not received therapy.

Researchers reported studying the blood of 73 patients recently infected with HIV – 52 who had been diagnosed with AIDS, and 21 without AIDS – and then comparing the results with blood samples from 22 patients who had progressed to AIDS after living with HIV for more than three years.

None of the patients had received therapy for the virus. But all the patients infected with the mutated strain of HIV, known as a recombinant, developed AIDS within three years. On average, people infected with HIV develop AIDS in six to 10 years.

Researchers also reported that people engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners increased their risk of contracting multiple strains of HIV that, once inside the host, could mutate or recombine into a new strain.

The study’s findings, Bolivar said, raise a particular concern for South Florida.

“We knew that sooner or later we were going to face this locally,” he said. “Cuba is local for Miami. We may see similar situations here in Miami in the future, and that’s something I’m concerned about.”

Bolivar has misgivings about the way the study was conducted, he said, and whether other scientists will be able to reach similar conclusions.

For example, , he said, the sample size – 95 patients – is not large enough to extrapolate significant findings for the thousands of people in Cuba living with HIV.

It was also unclear precisely when the study’s subjects contracted the virus, Bolivar said, and he questioned the ethics of allowing patients with HIV to develop AIDS without treatment.

“It’s very difficult for us in the United States or Europe or many places where there are treatments (for HIV) to replicate these findings in the long term because it’s unethical to wait until someone progresses until they can no longer benefit from treatment,” he said.

One thought on “In small study, aggressive HIV strain identified in Cuba

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s