Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C. (Feb. 6, 2020) – Despite significant progress against HIV/AIDS, the nation’s capital is still battling an HIV epidemic with rates that are five times higher than the national average. A study published today in the journal Scientific Reports uses powerful next-generation sequencing technology to learn more about how the virus is spreading and developing drug resistance in the District of Columbia.

“Our findings give us important clues about the spread, diversity and evolution of HIV in Washington, DC,” said senior author Marcos Pérez-Losada, PhD, an assistant professor in the Computational Biology Institute (CBI), which is based at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH). “Such knowledge can be used to devise better methods for HIV prevention and treatment.”

The study was carried out by a team of bioinformatics scientists and epidemiologists that included Keylie M. Gibson, a PhD student in Biological Sciences and a part of the CBI at Milken Institute SPH. Gibson was the lead author of the study.

Pérez-Losada, Gibson and their colleagues obtained blood samples from 68 people living with HIV in the District. They sequenced the genetic material taken from the virus and found that the HIV in the District is highly diverse – perhaps because the nation’s capital is an international hub with a lot of temporary residents and visitors.

In addition, the researchers found that about half of the study participants had at least one drug-resistant HIV strain. Such information might be used to help provide targeted, more effective drugs to people with resistant HIV, Pérez-Losada said.

Using next generation sequencing technology along with epidemiological data, the team was able to identify transmission chains in the District. Learning more about the factors involved in such networks can be used to prevent new cases from occurring and to provide effective treatment to those already infected, the authors said.

“Our findings of a genetically diverse and complex HIV epidemic in DC are scientifically important,” said Gibson. “At the same time, this study allowed us to give back to the District and the community through public health outreach and collaborations with organizations such as the DC Cohort.” 

“A cross-sectional study to characterize local HIV-1 dynamics in Washington, DC using next generation sequencing,” was published in the Feb. 6 issue of Scientific Reports, an online, open-access journal from the publishers of Nature.

Funding for the study was provided by the DC Cohort Study, the Women’s Interagency Study for HIV-1, a DC Center for AIDS Research pilot award and a supplemental award from the District of Columbia for AIDS Research, a program supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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