Another AIDS Mystery Is Tracked Down

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Tracing a disease back to its origins can often hold the key to conquering the malady. In a major discovery announced Sunday, scientists say they may have found the point of origin for a virus closely related to the most deadly form of AIDS. A team of researchers headed by Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama has traced the roots of the related virus back to a subspecies of African chimpanzees. This is significant because until now scientists have known only about half of the puzzle. "There are two major strains of the AIDS virus, HIV-1 and HIV-2, " notes TIME science reporter Alice Park. "HIV-2, which causes a milder form of the disease, was known to have come from a species of monkeys. But the unsolved question was where HIV-1, the deadlier and most globally prominent strain of the virus, had come from."

Discovering a related virus to HIV-1 in chimpanzees, she says "now gives strong strands of evidence that HIV-1 goes back to a species of chimp." Since the chimp virus doesn't cause sickness in the animals, says Park, "scientists will be able to study what makes their immune systems overcome the virus. And once you have natural hosts, you have a good model to study in order to help develop treatment options." Good news indeed. But as in all discoveries pertaining to AIDS, not quite a solution yet. For that, a lot more research still needs to be done.