10% of children living with HIV don’t develop AIDS because immune system ignores HIV

30 September 2016

The natural ability of some children's immune systems to hold off attacking HIV, thus stopping diseases progression, may provide clues for future treatment.

Children with their grandmother in South Africa

In a study among children living with HIV who have never taken treatment in South Africa, scientists found that around 10% do not develop AIDS because their immune system simply ignores the virus. The findings may uncover new avenues for treating HIV that can be applicable for both children and adults.

Oxford University led the research, which was published in Science Translational Medicine and looked at 170 children living with HIV who were ‘non-progressors’ – meaning they lived with the virus in their body, but did not develop any AIDS symptoms. Without treatment, roughly 50% of children living with HIV die before they turn two, but around 10% of children living with HIV appear to live without health concerns, with no visual signs that they have the virus.

All of the children in the study had a high level of virus in their body, but with no disease progression. A normal response to HIV would result in the body producing white blood cells – the very thing HIV kills. The fact that the body does not respond to HIV, means that white blood cells are maintained. Professor Philip Goulder, who led the research said “The lack of HIV disease here seems to result from avoiding making strong immune responses against HIV.”

The findings are markedly different from what is known about the 0.3% of adults living with HIV who resist disease progression. Much research has been centred on the HLA class 1 molecule – their presence in these rare adults is linked to a particularly strong immune response that restricts HIV replication.    

The new findings in children provide an additional avenue for researchers. The fact that they are able to remain healthy because the immune system hasn’t responded, has been likened to non-human primates infected with SIV – the simian equivalent of HIV. It is known that around 40 species have developed the same capacity to live healthily with the virus.

Professor Goulder said: “Further research is needed to establish the exact mechanism in children. That will give us more information about how HIV disease develops and may give us treatment approaches in addition to ART that block the pathway between HIV infection and HIV disease.”

Photo credit:
©AVERT. Photos used for illustrated purposes only. They do not imply the health status of any person in the photo.