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Study Reveals How HIV Virus Destroys Lung Tissue

A recent study published in Cell Reports exposes the damage human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has on lung tissue. Weill Cornell Medicine researchers discovered a mechanism that could explain why nearly “30 percent of HIV patients who are appropriately treated with antiretroviral therapies” are later diagnosed with emphysema. Further, the study reveals how HIV binds to and transforms basal cells lining airways. These altered cells then release enzymes that can “destroy lung tissue and poke holes in walls of air sacs.”

june2017_002“This research is important because although antiretroviral agents have turned HIV into a chronic, rather than deadly, disease, the viral reservoirs that remain in the lungs and other tissue continue to cause serious side effects,” said senior author Dr. Ronald Crystal, chairman of the Department of Genetic Medicine and the Bruce Webster Professor of Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and a pulmonologist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Now that we have more information about how the HIV virus might cause emphysema, we can learn more about this potential enzyme target and work toward developing a therapy to prevent this lung damage from happening.”

Although antiretroviral agents have helped to extend the lives of HIV-positive patients, they develop “degenerative disorders of the brain, heart and lungs” significantly more often than the general population. There are various explanations for this occurrence, including the belief that the antiretroviral drugs may in fact lead to these outcomes.

To gain insight, researchers exposed normal human airways basal cells, acquired from the lungs of nonsmokers, to HIV. Under observation, it was discovered that the virus “bonded to the basal cell’s surface and reprogrammed them to start producing an enzyme.” This enzyme then began to deteriorate proteins as well as destroy tissues. This finding is significant as emphysema originates in the airways, when basal cells are transformed due to the virus they begin to destroy healthy lung tissue which ultimately leads to emphysema.

“Our next step is to conduct additional research to determine what the preventive therapeutic target might be,” Crystal said, “And then, since basal cells are so important to normal lung anatomy and lung function, determine the other side effects of this re-programming.”

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