Approximately 10 million people worldwide are believed to be suffering from dementia brought about by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Now, a team of researchers from the University of Alberta believes that have arrived at “strong clues” to the underlying cause of HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder or HAND.
The researchers compared the brain tissue of 10 HIV patients with no neurological symptoms to the brain tissue of 20 patients suffering from HAND.
They discovered that patients with HAND had high levels of microRNAs. This affected the expression of proteins needed for the development of peroxisomes.
“A number of critical peroxisomal proteins—which are extraordinarily important for brain development and function—were virtually absent in the brains of HIV patients,” said Tom Hobman.
Hobman is Canada Research Chair in RNA viruses and host interactions and a professor of cell biology in the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry.
In an interview with Ross Neitz, communications associate for the faculty, Hobman said provide a clue to what causes HAND and lead to new biomarkers that would help physicians diagnose HAND, monitor the HIV progression and predict the likelihood of onset of dementia.
Chris Power, a Canada Research Chair in in neurological infection and immunity and a professor of Neurology at the U of A, said that while there are effective antiretroviral drugs for controlling HIV in the blood, many HIV patients still develop dementia.
“We think it’s because the antiviral drugs don’t get into the brain and don’t target the infected cells very well,” he said. “So the virus is lingering in the brain, causing damage to peroxisomes, which in turn causes brain disease.”
Listen to the Biotechnology Podcast…
As a result, many HIV patients are not able to work and end up under assisted living conditions.
The team is now working on ways to test for the loss of peroxisomes through other, easier-to-get-at tissues such as white blood cells, according to Neitz’s report. They are hopeful the findings could lead to new therapies.
There are well-tolerated drugs that regulate peroxisome activity. Hobman wants to find out of these drugs can be used as an additional therapy along with antiviral drugs.
“…the fact that some of these drugs are already Food and Drug Administration approved, it makes the road that much shorter if they were ever to be considered for this process,” he said.