Sep 24, 2018 | Updated: 04:34 PM EDT

New HIV Strain in Cuba Has Researchers Rushing to Stop Fast Progression of AIDS

Feb 15, 2015 02:11 PM EST

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In a new study published in the journal EBioMedicine, researchers with Belgium's University of Leuvan report the discovery of a new strain of HIV which may prove to be far more lethal to patients in the West. Originally found in patients in Cuba, the new strain poses particular threats to those infected with HIV as it can develop into AIDS within three years of infection. Though efforts have significantly lowered the infection rates of HIV, as well as prolonged lives with the help of antiretroviral drugs, researchers fear that the fast-moving virus may advance too quickly to treat.

While there are many variations in the form of the autoimmune infection, typical HIV infection in the absence of treatment takes on average 5 to 10 years before entering the lethal stages of AIDS. And with antiretroviral pharmaceuticals, treatments in collaboration with powerful cocktails aimed at changing the immunological response can extend that period for significantly longer. However, the new strain discovered by Cuban health officials has raised great concern as the viral infection is far more aggressive, developing into AIDS within three years of infection.

With such a small window in the infection's manageable HIV stage, researchers believe that the new aggressive form of HIV may progress so quickly that the aid of many antiretroviral drugs may come too late. 

"So this group of patients that progressed very fast, they were all recently infected" lead author of the study, Anne-Mieke Vandamme says. " And we know that because they had been HIV negative tested one, or a maximum of two years before."

The study took blood from 73 recently infected patients, none of whom had received treatment for the virus. And within three years of infection all of the patients infected with the mutated strain developed AIDS. Knowing that fast progression is usually attributed to multiple variants, often with a patient's weak immune system being the main culprit, the researchers began to investigate the health of the patients and the attributes of their HIV strains. What the researchers found was far more concerning.

"Here we had a variant of HIV that we found only in the group that was progressing fast; not in the other two groups" Vandamme says. "We focused in on this variant and tried to find out what was different, and we saw it was a recombinant of three different subtypes."

The new variant named "CRF19" reveals a combination of HIV subtypes A, D and G, and is far faster-acting than strains within the general populous. Though researchers believe that it is not the first time that this strain of the virus has been seen.

The variant has also been observed in Africa, though in too small of numbers to be fully researched. However, the strain is far more widespread in Cuba, providing researchers with a lot opportunities to track the infection, and find out how the new combination behaves.

While many may fear that the new strain is too lethal to combat, researchers say that the aggressive form of HIV responds to most modern antiretrovirals, though more important is early detection of the infection. If patients are able to be tested early for HIV infection, treatments may be able to delay the onset of AIDS far longer than what they are seeing now. And the researchers are urging people who have unprotected sex with multiple partners to be tested for HIV early and often-it may save their lives.

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