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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 9 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 19
Low cholesterol may help HIV-positive men resist the disease, new study says
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Low cholesterol may help HIV-positive men resist the disease, new study says

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Cholesterol in immune cells may be what allows the HIV virus to spread in the body, and therefore HIV-positive people with low cholesterol in their immune cells can withstand the virus for years.

That is the conclusion of a study published April 30 in mBio, the Journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health analyzed data and biological samples from 16 HIV-positive men over the course of 11 years. Eight of them, even without medication, showed little disease progression. The other half showed normal progression.

Among the slowly progressing patients, or 'nonprogressors,' researchers found low levels of cholesterol in immune system dendritic cells. They believe that the dendritic cells, which transfer HIV to T-cells, may not be able to function in that way if they are deprived of cholesterol.

If HIV cannot get to the body's T-cells, or CD4 helper cells, the virus is unable to replicate, the scientists hypothesize.

Professor Charles Rinaldo, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh's department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, told Healthline that scientists have known for 20 years that if you put 'a smidge of virus' in a test tube with dendritic cells, then mix in T-cells, you have 'explosive infections.'

But if you put the same quantity of the HIV virus into a T-cell directly, it doesn't replicate well, he said.

Infections flared up even when dendritic cells and T-cells from HIV-negative men were used. But when the researchers mixed HIV with T-cells and dendritic cells from the HIV-positive nonprogressors in a test tube, the virus did not replicate.

'This was striking, and that's why we took several years to work this up,' Rinaldo said. 'It was really almost unbelievable.'

None of the study participants were taking cholesterol-lowering statins. The University of Pittsburgh scientists found that the nonprogressors had low levels of cholesterol in their dendritic cells even before infection, suggesting that it is a genetic trait.

They were also seen to have low cholesterol in their B lymphocyte cells. Rinaldo said his team is now trying to find genetic markers for these traits.

Scientists have long suspected that dendritic cells play a role in infection. But the assumption has been that they participate simply by living in mucus membranes, such as the rectum and vagina, which are common locations of HIV infection.

Scientists have also known for some time that cholesterol is needed for the HIV virus to replicate. Cholesterol is essential for cell function, but the specific role it plays in HIV infection is still uncertain.

Previous studies have shown that HIV uses a unique system called tunneling nanotubes, or TNT, to spread among cells. It is a form of cell-to-cell communication that avoids interference by antibodies sent to kill the virus.

'These dendritic cells shoot out long tubes to other dendritic cells,' Rinaldo said. 'We think about it as a highway that can take molecules from one cell to another. HIV takes this highway, too.'

Researchers say that cholesterol may by a key factor in allowing HIV to follow the 'highway' from cell to cell. Studying nonprogressors may ultimately lead to a cure for the disease, or even a vaccine so that people who do not carry beneficial gene mutations are also resistant to HIV.

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