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Paper explores new theory on spread of HIV by “popular” cells

“Popular” – could there really be such a thing? According to a new opinion paper published in PLoS Pathogens, the human body may contain cells that have more contact with other cells and could be “superspreaders” of the virus. , Ph.D., senior scientific officer, , and co-authors, hypothesize that slight differences between cells may mean that some cells may actually act like hubs in a social network when spreading infectious diseases. The researchers base their theory on a review of decades of HIV studies and research across multiple facilities.

Just like some humans can spread disease to others at a high rate, so too can some rare cells infected with HIV become superspreaders inside the body, according to the new theory. “We need to see the actual moment of HIV contraction in a human to confirm this theory, which is the difficult part,” says Dr. Talbert-Slagle. “But, if what we think is happening is true, a person would contract HIV in the rare instance when a cellular superspreader becomes infected. In many other cases, though, the virus could infect a few cells but then may actually die out inside a person’s body without ever taking hold.”

The paper explains that if cellular HIV superspreaders do exist, then the most successful strategy for preventing the infection from becoming established in the body is to block or remove these cells before or immediately after infection. “We treat all cells in the body with the same method, but because cells have different abilities to release or “shed” a virus and infect each other, we may need to treat cells in a more individual manner,” says Dr. Talbert-Slagle.

The researchers assert that if their theory is true, this could affect not only the way HIV is treated, but also treatment for other cell-based diseases such as cancer.


Cellular Superspreaders: An Epidemiological Perspective on HIV Infection inside the Body, Kristina Talbert-Slagle, Katherine E. Atkins, Koon-Kiu Yan, Ekta Khurana, Mark Gerstein, Elizabeth H. Bradley, David Berg, Alison P. Galvani, Jeffrey P. Townsend, PLoS Pathog, DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1004092, published 8 May 2014.

Yale Global Health Leadership Institute