Johannesburg - According to a statement by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), a global team of scientists and researchers, including academics from UKZN and Omnigen Biodata Ltd, have discovered a genetic variant that may explain the naturally lower viral loads of HIV seen in some people of African ancestry.
The university said that this is the first new genetic variant associated with HIV infection identified in almost 30 years and highlights the importance of conducting genetic research in diverse populations, including those of African ancestry.
UKZN Emeritus Professor Ayesha Motala, co-author of the “Nature” research paper and co-chief investigator of Discover Me South Africa, said that the piece of research is a real turning point for understanding HIV infections in African populations.
The institution said that the results of this study also demonstrate the importance of undertaking genetic research in African populations to enable discovery and address long-standing health inequities.
The varsity statement said that despite the existence of treatments that reduce viral loads, the amount of virus that an individual has in their system can vary widely between individuals infected with HIV.
“Higher viral loads are known to correlate with faster disease progression and an increased risk of transmission. Viral load is influenced by several factors, including an individual’s genetics. Considering the disproportionate impact of HIV on people living in Africa – more than 25 million people are HIV-positive on the continent – the researchers sought to better understand the role of genetics in HIV infection in African populations.
“The study analysed the genetics of approximately 4 000 individuals of African ancestry living with HIV. A variant in the gene CHD1L, found to be specific to populations of African descent, was associated with a reduced viral load. Experimental studies suggest this variant may play a role in limiting viral replication, although more research is required to fully understand how this occurs,” read the statement.
Professor Manjinder Sandhu from the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London is a co-author of the “Nature” research paper, the founder and CEO of Omnigen Biodata, the principle investigator of Discover Me UK, and the co-chief investigator of Discover Me South Africa. Sandhu added that with more than a million new HIV infections a year, it’s clear that we still have a long way to go in the fight against HIV.
“We are yet to have a vaccine to prevent infection, have yet to find a cure, and still see drug resistance emerging in some individuals. The next step is to fully understand exactly how this genetic variant controls HIV replication,” said the university.