Research at Pitt finds link to HIV

| Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 8:44 a.m.

A discovery in Pittsburgh about how HIV spreads through the human body could help doctors tame the virus in some infected patients, researchers say.

Findings at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health show the disease moves slowly in people whose immune cells are low in cholesterol. That suggests HIV patients might live longer if researchers can regulate cholesterol metabolism in those cells, said lead author Giovanna Rappocciolo.

“We think it's important because it's a very new approach to the study of the HIV infection. I think it could be significant,” said Rappocciolo, an assistant professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at Pitt.

Her work with department Chairman Charles Rinaldo appears Tuesday in mBio, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology. Funded through the National Institutes of Health, their discovery caps several years of research focused on eight men in the Pittsburgh area.

The men are among 5 percent to 10 percent of the more than 1.1 million people in the United States living with HIV who can stay healthy for seven years — or longer — without conventional therapies, Rappocciolo said.

Those patients had low cholesterol levels inside certain cells that spread HIV in the body, Rappocciolo and several Pitt colleagues found.

Researchers relied on data assembled over 30 years through the Pitt Men's Study, part of the NIH-supported Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study spanning four cities.

“Results like ours are the real payoff of the past three decades of meticulous data and specimen collection,” Rinaldo said in a statement. Rappocciolo said their department has received more than $70 million for research related to AIDS, the final stage of the HIV disease that severely inhibits the immune system.

Rappocciolo stressed her findings do not mean that HIV patients with low-cholesterol diets are safeguarded.

“I don't want people to start thinking that if they have low (blood) cholesterol that they're protected from infection,” Rappocciolo said.

Pitt researchers are investigating whether a genetic predisposition leads to the lower cellular cholesterol levels in some patients.

It's unclear whether doctors can manipulate those levels in patients who might benefit from a decrease. Exploring that possibility could take years of research, Rappocciolo said. She cautioned that cholesterol levels in immune cells do not appear linked to cholesterol in the bloodstream, which is the gauge of conventional cholesterol levels.

Advocates for HIV awareness said the Pitt research follows a string of promising discoveries over several years. Annual HIV mortality rates fell by more than 50 percent from 1987 to 2010, to 2.6 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It estimated 15,529 people with an AIDS diagnosis died in the United States in 2010.

“Every year, the treatments become better and better,” said Emma Brownell, communications director at the Los Angeles-based AIDS Research Alliance of America.

Though researchers have established no definitive HIV cure, a patient in Germany who received stem cell transplants in 2007 and 2008 no longer tests positive for the disease.

A vaccine developed at Oregon Health and Science University appears to have cleared a monkey version of HIV from half the primates treated, according to findings published in September.

“By and large, folks have been able to live longer, go back to work, go back to school, remain active, remain healthy for the most part,” said Oladoyin Desalu, executive director at the AIDS Coalition of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “It's no longer a death sentence.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or

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