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HIV strain came from gorillas, study finds

Second most deadly HIV group came from western lowland gorillas in Cameroon

Western lowland gorillas in southern Cameroon appear to be the source for the second-most-lethal category of the immunodeficiency virus that crossed into humans, a new study suggests.

The category, called HIV-1 group O, has not been nearly as dangerous to humans as group M, which has infected more than 40 million people worldwide. But its origin and history had been a mystery.

Using nearly 3,000 fecal samples from gorillas in several western and central African countries, researchers reported Monday that they pinpointed the source population for group O, which infected 100,000 in west-central Africa, and for the exceedingly rare group P, which infected only two people. 

The simian viruses identified by researchers leaped from chimpanzees to the gorillas, which spread it at least twice to humans, according to the study, published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The gorilla virus is basically a chimp virus in gorillas,” said study co-author Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Pennsylvania, who has been studying chimpanzee versions of the simian immunodeficiency virus, SIV, for two decades.

Researchers had already traced the main HIV-1 lineage, dubbed group M, to SIV in chimpanzees, which transmitted it several times to humans. The origin of the very rare group N, which infected about a dozen people, likewise has been found.

Why group O did not spread more readily between chimpanzees and western lowland gorillas, which share habitat, is of great interest to researchers looking for clues to combat the pathogen.

“Gorillas and chimps live in the same forest; they probably see each other more often than humans see them," said Hahn. "And yet, there is only evidence for a single transmission.”

Only a small fraction of communities of western lowland gorillas in southern Cameroon are infected with gorilla SIV, and the prevalence was estimated to be below 2%, the study found.

Even though SIV is just as common among eastern chimps sharing habitat with eastern lowland gorillas, there was no evidence it had leaped from one species to the other, the study found. Only western lowland gorillas harbored the SIV that apparently spread from central chimpanzees.

“It seems that they have a mutation that makes the chimpanzee viruses have a lot of difficulties adapting to this host,” said the lead investigator of the study, Martine Peeters, a virologist at the Institute of Research for Development at Montpellier University, in France.

The infection among western lowland gorillas was spread over a distance of nearly 250 miles, only in their northernmost range - southern Cameroon. Researchers are not sure if geographic barriers prevent spread among more gorillas, or if the distribution is the result of overall population decline of gorillas, due to human incursion and other factors, including infection from Ebola.

But SIV itself could be fueling the decline - researchers don't know if SIV eventually leads to an AIDS-like disease, as it does among chimpanzees. That will be the researchers' next line of investigation, they said.

That kind of epidemiology will be tough, because it requires extensive tracking of fecal samples over time, to see whether mortality rates among infected gorillas differ from those of their non-infected cohorts. 

After all, Peeters said, “it took us about eight years of collecting samples to find this one."

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