'Substantial': HIV may accelerate aging significantly in infected people

By nearly five years?
Mert Erdemir
HIV-infected people showed significant age acceleration in four epigenetic “clock” measurements.National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), has demonstrated that HIV has an "early and substantial" effect on aging in infected people, quickening biological changes in the body that are related to normal aging within only two to three years, according to the press release published by the institution.

The results of the study further suggest that HIV infection may cut nearly five years off an individual’s lifespan compared to an uninfected person.

“Our work demonstrates that even in the early months and years of living with HIV, the virus has already set into motion an accelerated aging process at the DNA level," said lead author Elizabeth Crabb Breen, a professor emerita at UCLA’s Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “This emphasizes the critical importance of early HIV diagnosis and an awareness of aging-related problems, as well as the value of preventing HIV infection in the first place.”

The new findings are significant because previous studies had asserted that it is the antiretroviral medications used to keep the infection under control that are related to an earlier start of aging-related diseases such as heart and kidney disease, frailty, and cognitive difficulties.

A small-scale research

The study was carried out on 102 subjects. The researchers examined blood samples that were obtained six months or less before the participants contracted HIV and again two to three years afterward. Later on, the research team compared these with identical samples from 102 non-infected men of the same age taken over the same time period.

The emphasis of the research was on how HIV impacts epigenetic DNA methylation, a process by which cells turn genes on or off in response to normal physiological changes. Epigenetic changes are those made in response to the influence of the environment, people’s behaviors, or other outside factors — such as disease — that affect how genes behave without changing the genes themselves.

“Our access to rare, well-characterized samples allowed us to design this study in a way that leaves little doubt about the role of HIV in eliciting biological signatures of early aging,” said senior author Beth Jamieson, a professor in the division of Hematology and Oncology at the Geffen School. “Our long-term goal is to determine whether we can use any of these signatures to predict whether an individual is at increased risk for specific aging-related disease outcomes, thus exposing new targets for intervention therapeutics.”

The researchers also stated that there are some limitations to the study. The first one is that results may not apply to women because the study only involved men. Additionally, the majority of the participants were reportedly white, and the sample size was insufficient to take into consideration later effects of highly active antiretroviral treatment or to predict clinical outcomes.

The results of the study were published in the peer-reviewed journal iScience.

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