Health & Family

Duke researchers say HIV attacks faster than expected

HIV infects and attacks the body within days – much faster than previously thought – drastically narrowing the window of time when intervention is possible, Duke University researchers have found.

This means clinicians must test more and sooner if they hope to catch an infection before it can be transmitted to someone else. “We're just going to have to be much more aggressive in identifying the infection early on,” said Dr. Peter Leone, the state's HIV/AIDS health director and an associate professor at the UNC Chapel Hill schools of medicine and public health.

Knowledge of what goes on immediately after transmission of the virus is essential to understanding what kind of vaccine will be effective, a discovery especially important in the wake of two recent failed attempts to find a shot that works.

On Thursday, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the main federal agency in charge of AIDS research, called for scientists to return to a basic question: What happens when the virus is transmitted?

“Design of a vaccine that blocks HIV infection will require enormous intellectual leaps beyond present-day knowledge,” concluded a broad team of institute researchers writing in today's edition of the journal Science. The team said the focus of research should be on discovering a vaccine rather than on clinical trials for evaluating medicines that may or may not work.

The center's research has significantly changed the way scientists look at HIV. For years, doctors believed the virus was a stealth infection, and couldn't be diagnosed for months. Researchers at UNC Chapel Hill proved several years ago that the virus can be detected within weeks. Now the Duke team has whittled the time frame further, to days.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. Worldwide, about 3 million cases of the disease are diagnosed each year.