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Virus Hunters Track Early HIV

Tissue Sample From 1960 Yields Clues to How Virus Has Changed
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 1, 2008 -- It's like finding a piece of the past.

Researchers looking into the virus that causes AIDS have found HIV in a 1960 tissue sample of an infected woman from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo).

Researchers, led by Michael Worobey, PhD, at the University of Arizona, compared the 1960 virus sample with a sample from 1959 -- the oldest known sample -- for clues on how the early HIV virus has evolved.

After looking at HIV in the tissue of the DR Congo woman and comparing it to the virus from 1959, researchers concluded that the virus evolved from one common ancestor sweeping through Africa in the beginning of the 20th century.

The research team also compared the genetics of the two viruses to HIV obtained from tissue samples from Belgium and Canadian AIDS patients from 1981 and 1997.

They found that the earlier virus changed -- or diversified -- well before it began to race the globe.

Researchers write in information presented with the findings that they believe HIV evolves in a "fairly reliable, clock-like fashion."

However, HIV is still shrouded in mystery.

Having access to the tissue of an infected person can help researchers unlock the genetic code of a disease and hopefully find clues to prevent further outbreaks.

Virus hunters have reason to be excited.

It's believed that many hospitals in west-central Africa have archived tissue specimens, which could contain early HIV.

That's like finding a treasure trove of genetic material, and "a vast source of clinical material for viral genetic analysis," write the researchers.

The research letter appears in the Oct. 1 edition of the journal Nature.

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