Friday, September 5, 2014

The Connection Between HIV and Multiple Sclerosis

It began as an observation in 2011; an Australian doctor who treats patients with HIV noticed that he had never had an HIV patient who went on to develop multiple sclerosis (MS). A literature search essentially confirmed his observations - there was just one known HIV patient who developed MS, and that patient's symptoms went away after undergoing the usual treatment regimen for HIV. So, he thought; is HIV infection (or its treatment regimen) somehow protective against MS?

To find out, the doctor and his coworkers needed access to the records of a large number of patients, because the number of people in a population who are HIV-positive is not all that large, and the number who develop MS is smaller still. They found what they needed in the records of the National Health Service of England. Among over 21,000 HIV-positive patients, they found only seven MS patients, when (according to a non-HIV-infected control group) there should have been 18. In other words, HIV-positive patients being treated for their disease were 60% less likely to develop MS. The results are published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.

MS develops when the patient's immune system attacks the sheaths protecting nerve cells in the central nervous system. Some researchers think that the trigger causing the immune system to attack is an unknown virus. If so, there's a good possibility that the antiviral cocktail used to treat HIV is also attacking this unknown virus, thereby reducing the risk of developing MS.

Much more research needs to be done before we can be sure. But here's a case where the curiosity of an observant doctor may ultimately lead to an effective treatment for MS.

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