HIV Adaptation: Three Decades On

Ongoing studies of how new treatments are performing against HIV are a mainstay of research. Ideas and theories for new treatments and vaccines are continually being studied and debated. Now, three decades since HIV broke onto the scene in North America, one group decided it was time for an investigation into two different areas: First, to find out just how the virus adapts to humans and, second, to see if the virus has changed since it was first introduced. The idea required extensive research on HIV adaptation and it also involved considerable back tracking. However, the effort paid off.

How HIV responds to current drug therapies has been well documented. However, exactly how HIV adapts to its host, humans, has never before been looked into. Going back nearly thirty years, and retrieving important molecular information on HIV, was a tedious task. Nevertheless, in spite of the challenges, the team found what they needed. Based on these findings, it is clear that HIV has adapted over the last couple of decades to humans. What was the process involved? And, what does it mean for us today?

First, the virus infects the host and begins to multiply. This process does not go unnoticed by the host’s immune system, which then immediately dispatches help. This internal fight helps keep the virus in check. Current drug therapies help too. After years of fighting, the immune system can tire out. As time passes, and the virus becomes accustomed to its host, it also begins to adapt to the onslaught brought on by the immune system. After enough time passes, the invader can become quite adept at evading the immune attacks. This is very bad for the host, who has lost the ability to naturally protect itself from the virus.

HIV adaptation has begun, but at this point, the adaptation has been minor. In fact, these changes are so minimal that researchers are confident that current therapies, and vaccines in development, will still be effective. Knowing that the virus can adapt and change is important, as researchers will remain alert to this and adjust research and strategies accordingly.