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HIV-1 transmitting couples have similar viral load set-points in Rakai, Uganda.

Abstract

It has been hypothesized that HIV-1 viral load set-point is a surrogate measure of HIV-1 viral virulence, and that it may be subject to natural selection in the human host population. A key test of this hypothesis is whether viral load set-points are correlated between transmitting individuals and those acquiring infection. We retrospectively identified 112 heterosexual HIV-discordant couples enrolled in a cohort in Rakai, Uganda, in which HIV transmission was suspected and viral load set-point was established. In addition, sequence data was available to establish transmission by genetic linkage for 57 of these couples. Sex, age, viral subtype, index partner, and self-reported genital ulcer disease status (GUD) were known. Using ANOVA, we estimated the proportion of variance in viral load set-points which was explained by the similarity within couples (the 'couple effect'). Individuals with suspected intra-couple transmission (97 couples) had similar viral load set-points (p = 0.054 single factor model, p = 0.0057 adjusted) and the couple effect explained 16% of variance in viral loads (23% adjusted). The analysis was repeated for a subset of 29 couples with strong genetic support for transmission. The couple effect was the major determinant of viral load set-point (p = 0.067 single factor, and p = 0.036 adjusted) and the size of the effect was 27% (37% adjusted). Individuals within epidemiologically linked couples with genetic support for transmission had similar viral load set-points. The most parsimonious explanation is that this is due to shared characteristics of the transmitted virus, a finding which sheds light on both the role of viral factors in HIV-1 pathogenesis and on the evolution of the virus.

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