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Ancient virus link to HIV

26th June 2007

The fact that our ancestors successfully resisted a virus from the same family as HIV millions of years ago could have contributed to human vulnerability to HIV-1 infection today, new research has found.

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The modern human genome shows no traces of contact with Pan troglodytes endogenous retrovirus-1 (PtERV1), meaning that we are no longer vulnerable to infection by this virus, but its existence has been inferred by traces left in chimpanzee genetic material.

The study, published the journal Science, may offer new insights into today's HIV pandemic, researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle concluded.

Michael Emerman, a corresponding author of the study, said infection by the PtERV1 virus was a battle that humans had already won.

But researchers reconstructed the virus, using viral segments imprinted on the chimp genome, and found that a human protein was able to inactivate it.

The researchers tested different versions of the protein from various primates and found that those able to inactivate the PtERV1 virus were incapable of inactivating HIV-1, and vice versa.

They concluded that it was possible that evolutionary changes that occurred in this protective protein as a result of humans developing resistance to one virus long ago, rendered the protein ineffective against another type of retrovirus—HIV.

Zhang Linqi, director of the AIDS Research Center at Beijing-based Peking Union Medical College, cautioned that it was hard to understand HIV infection fully through a single gene, as viral infections in humans involved many aspects of the whole genome.

But he said the possible interactive mechanism highlighted by this study could lead to a better understanding of the whole process of HIV infection.

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