HIV and Bone Marrow

March 10, 2010

New evidence shows that HIV, the virus that is the precursor for AIDS, can hide within the bone marrow. In fact, HIV can remain dormant in various parts of the body. Researchers hope this information will lead to more and better treatment options for both HIV and AIDS.

Changing Approach: Diagnose HIV

Associate professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, Dr. Kathleen Collins is the lead author for this research. Collins says we need to change the way we approach this virus. Current drugs reduce the levels of the virus in the blood and they are very good at what they do. The mortality rate from HIV/AIDS has seen a sharp decrease—as much as 90%. But, says Collins, "The drugs do not cure the disease.  And so people have to remain on drugs for at least the foreseeable future, possibly for their entire lives."

Collins says that the reason the drugs fail to effect a cure is due to the fact that the virus can remain dormant in a form that can resist the drugs. When the drugs are discontinued, the virus is able to regain its hold. Collins says the next step is to figure out how it is that HIV can survive while in this dormant state. Once we have all the pieces of this puzzle, researchers may be able to formulate a truly curative treatment.

Scientists have long known that HIV can hide in parts of the body, but its presence in the bone marrow is a finding of a different nature.

Long-Lived HIV Cells

Collins says that when the virus sets up house in a place such as the brain, it is likely a shorter-lived form of the virus. It's a sign that there is some low-level infection activity. The drugs can't get to the brain in high enough levels to kill the virus.

But when the virus is in the bone marrow, it tends to be the latent form of the virus that doesn't kill the cells. In fact, when this happens the cells themselves are long-lived. That means that HIV can remain alive for many years inside of the bone marrow cells.

Collins says that scientists will have to figure out a way to target specific reservoirs that house the virus. But she says that her findings don't imply that the current drug therapies are to blame for forcing the virus into hiding. She feels that the drugs actually reduce dormancy, but never quite manage to eradicate HIV.

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