Cells Appear to Age Faster in People With HIV, Study Finds

Scientists look at how long-term HIV infection may affect cell structure.

ByGillian Mohney and Dr. Gretchen Winter
April 21, 2016, 2:16 PM

— -- More than 30 years after the discovery of HIV, researchers are now learning how long-term HIV infection can affect the body and even cause premature aging of cells, according to a new study.

Researchers examined the DNA of people with and without HIV in the study published today in the Cell Press. While new medications have made the virus more chronic than deadly, researchers wanted to find out whether it caused long-term damage to the body.

Researchers from the University of Nebraska and University of California-San Diego analyzed 137 people with HIV and 44 people without the virus. They found tell-tale signs of "aging" in the cell's DNA by looking at specific biomarkers associated with aging.

The people with HIV had changes in their DNA that were more common in the DNA of someone five years older, according to the study.

Such DNA changes can be key in understanding the long-term effects of HIV infection, Dr. Howard Fox, one of the authors and senior associate dean for research and development at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told ABC News.

“It really provides quite an accurate biological block … you can fairly accurately predict their age,” Fox said

Fox said they started the study after doctors started to see older HIV patients at risk for seemingly unrelated conditions.

“Antiretroviral therapy is absolutely wonderful, but clinicians have pointed out that, ‘Wow, we have seen these non-HIV related conditions like colon cancer, and they seem to be occurring more frequently,’" Fox said. "Now we are seeing diseases that are associated with aging.”

Each year of aging increases the risk of death, and the authors estimate the advanced aging seen in HIV-infected people results in a total increase of 19 percent in their risk of death compared to their peers.

The authors suggested this information may play a role in determining whether such patients should receive preventative health care earlier, like vaccines and routine screenings.

The researchers said this study can help patients and doctors arrange the needed preventative care.

“These people should be at higher recognition, or their caregivers should be at higher recognition, that they are at more risk,” Fox said

Dr. Spyros Kalams, an immunologist and HIV expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, has studied the HIV virus for years. He said the virus was known to cause low-level inflammation even after people go on medication to control HIV as the immune system attempts to "fight" off the HIV.

The signs of inflammation go “down on therapy but not all the changes are reversed," Kalams said, adding that the inflammation "looks a lot better, but it doesn’t look like someone who has never been infected."

The immune system can become "exhausted" after years of "chronic activation" to fight the virus, he explained.

The exhaustion results from cells that are dividing more than in a healthy person when they're "resting," and it may result in the cell looking older on a molecular level, he added.

"The cells have a half-life," Kalams explained.

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