Nothing in HIV Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution

Published on: Author: the CVR science blog editors

Today, the 1st of December marks World AIDS day. A day designed to raise awareness of those 37 million people infected with HIV (and the potential for that number to grow) and this year aims to end Isolation, Stigma, and Transmission, under the umbrella of a ‘right to health’. This day is one of 9 Global Health days of the World Health Organisation alongside other infections like tuberculosis, malaria and hepatitis.

David Robertson – CVR HIV evolution expert


AIDS – or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome – is caused by HIV or human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is a kind of virus called a retrovirus, which means it can stick itself into our own DNA making it extremely hard to get rid of. HIV grows in your immune cells and leads ultimately to their destruction. Loss of these immune cells makes it difficult to fight other infections from viruses, bacteria and fungi that are not HIV.

There is currently no vaccine to stop you from contracting HIV (but scientists are working on one) and there is no cure if you do get infected (also working on that too!).

Those people infected can never rid themselves of the virus but can stop developing AIDS by taking medicine, known as antivirals – that blocks the virus from growing inside them, and those them getting sick.

HIV – not over yet

This medicine is now a combination of different drugs referred to as highly-active anti-retroviral therapy, or HAART. A combination of medicine is needed because if only a single drug is used, HIV can easily become immune or resistant to it. HAART drugs target different parts of the virus. HAART must be taken for the life of the patient or else HIV will begin to grow again and can lead to AIDS.

Some of the antivirals are so effective that they can be taken by an uninfected person to prevent HIV infection. This is known as pre-exposure prophylaxis or PREP. Other things like regular testing, using condoms during sex or not sharing injecting drug paraphernalia can reduce the chances of spreading the virus.

While developments like HAART, PREP and rapid diagnosis are making global control of HIV/AIDS more of a reality, there is still work to be done. For example, some have raised the question of whether it is better to be diagnosed with HIV or diabetes, highlighting the idea that with current medicines, HIV infection is nothing more than a manageable illness. A look beneath the surface reveals that despite recent advances in antivirals there remains significant issues with treatment side-effects, lack of diagnosis and the continuous need to stay on top of the virus throughout a persons life. These make World AIDS day all the more important.

HIV Evolution

Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution and HIV and AIDS is no exception. Questions like: Where did HIV come from? When did people first get infected? Why does HIV cause AIDS? And how likely will the virus become resistant to our antivirals? Can all be answered by looking at how the virus changes or evolves over time.

To explore this important area and mark World AIDS day, we talked with Professor David Robertson, principal investigator and head of bioinformatics at the CVR. David has dedicated his career to understanding HIV evolution (looking at where HIV originated from [chimpanzee/gorilla], mechanisms of its evolution, and investigating drug resistance) and how it interacts with our cells and he does this through the power of computational biology and bioinformatic approaches. Listen to Jack and I’s conversation with David about HIV, bioinformatics, and trying to figure out how virus hijack our body using a way of thinking called control theory….

For related podcast episodes on HIV and AIDS see:

A chat with Beatrice Hahn about HIV evolution

User-28288327 – Beatrice-hahn-the-2016-sir-michael-stoker-prize-winner

Last year’s World AIDS Day podcast looking at the diverse ways CVR scientists are studying the virus from a clinical, molecular and veterinary perspective.

Talking with Dr Clare Jolly about how HIV spreads from cell to cell within your body.

Or why not explore recent blog posts on HIV/AIDS? Such as this on HIV ‘restriction factors’ or this on an HIV cure.


Written by Connor Bamford