A new study explains how the genetic mutation that once blocked the plague could now help protect liver health in HIV.
The bubonic plague, or the “black death,” most likely wiped out about half of the population of Medieval Europe.
Some studies have shown that people who survived outbreaks of the plague in the past most likely had a mutation, called the CCR5-delta 32, in the CCR5 gene.
Now, researchers at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, the University of Maryland in College Park, and the Research Triangle Institute near Bethesda, NC, are looking at whether the same genetic mutation could help protect people with HIV and hepatitis C from life-threatening liver damage.
The investigators — led by Dr. Kenneth Sherman — worked with two groups of participants: the first cohort had enrolled in the Multicenter Hemophilia Cohort Study, and the second cohort was taking part in a clinical trial for an experimental drug treating HIV.
The new study’s findings appear in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
A genetic mutation with surprising benefits
In the first part of the study, the team analyzed data from participants in the Multicenter Hemophilia Cohort Study, which included people who, in the 1980s, received treatment for hemophilia (a bleeding disorder).
At that time, these people came into contact with improperly sanitized medical objects that carried HIV and the hepatitis C virus.
“If [these individuals] did not succumb to complications of HIV early on, many of them went on to have rapidly progressive liver disease that we now know occurs in the setting of untreated hepatitis C and HIV infection,” explains Dr. Sherman.
“This is a group that has a rapid progression of liver fibrosis. The question we asked,” he says, was, “‘Is there is a subset of people who carry the gene that leads to a defect in CCR5, which is a receptor for some key elements of the immune system that modulate inflammation?'”
Looking at this cohort, the researchers focused on the data of those who had provided all the relevant health information for a period of 4 years.
In this group, the scientists tried to find those who showed signs of liver fibrosis (scarring) — which indicates damage in this organ — and whether or not they carried the CCR5-delta 32 genetic mutation.
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