No Virus to Blame for New AIDS-Like Disease—It’s an Autoimmune Response

By Sophie Bushwick | August 24, 2012 1:11 pm

Mycobacterium abscessus
Signs of infection with Mycobacterium abcessus, which
primarily attacks those with suppressed immune systems

In 2004, medical researchers began noticing cases where patients, primarily middle-aged Asians, sought treatment for frequent opportunistic infections. Developing these infections, which mainly affect people with compromised immune systems, is a key sign of AIDS, and yet these patients test negative for HIV, the AIDS virus.

According to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, an autoimmune response—when your immune system attacks your own body—triggers the immunodeficiency. But we still don’t know why the autoimmune response develops abruptly at around age 50.

For the NEJM study, the researchers wanted to see whether these patients, when compared with healthy subjects and with people who had other infections, had anything unusual going on in their blood. 203 HIV-negative Thai and Taiwanese volunteers, to that end, provided medical histories and blood samples to researchers from the National Institutes of Health. Some participants were currently struggling with at least one opportunistic infection, such as Mycobacterium abcessus. Others acted as controls: Some had tuberculosis, which is related to M. abcessus, and showed no signs that their infection was due to an immunodeficiency, while others were healthy.

By comparing the blood samples from each group, researchers managed to finger the culprit behind the new syndrome: an antibody that tells the immune system to attack the protein interferon-gamma was present in high concentrations in the blood of 88 percent of subjects with the immunodeficiency, but only had an insignificant presence in the control subjects, or was absent entirely. Interferon-gamma is a helpful protein that normally helps the body fight off infections. But for some reason, in these people, the immune system has begun treating it as an enemy.

The researchers still don’t know why the patients’ immune systems begin turning on them, but because the syndrome primarily targets Asians and doesn’t set in until middle age, it may be due to a combination of genetic background and genetic damage from environmental factors. Though the new syndrome’s cause remains mysterious, the study has discovered enough information for researchers to begin treating patients by shutting down the cells that produce anti-interferon-gamma antibodies.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Jay Fox

    Did anyone study diet? Is there anything in common in diets of those afflicted compared to controls? What about diets of control subjects?

  • shaun-kat

    Good questions Jay. I’d also be interested in other cohort related environmental or epigenetic concerns.

  • Maki

    I doubt diet has anything to do with this.

  • JD Brown

    I would like to know as well. My aunt was just diagnosed with New AIDS and we are not of the Asian background. I am trying to research it, but every article on it is the same. I need to know more so we will know how we need to treat and respond to this.

  • Sophie Bushwick

    The researchers in this particular study didn’t analyze diet, just medical history and blood samples.

  • Pippa

    Something changed in 2004 and it was not genetics! As one ethnic group is effected more than others I would suspect something such as a dietary factor, and something that they tend to eat which other do not. With the recent scares about foods imported from China it might be worth looking into the geographical prevalence of this autoimmune disorder for clues.

  • http://Yahoo Cesar

    The article is very useful for my science class.

  • Deirdre

    Definitely look at diet, especially any items that contain synthetic ingredients — artificial colorings or sweetners, and just how much sugar is being consumed. And definitely tell them to start using raw garlic in their diets to boost the immune system in the right direction.

  • Stefan

    This is very interesting, I don’t get it really though. If it was environmental, wouldn’t it affect a lot more people, not at random? Are similarities in exposure to certain toxins, or environmental factors?
    Anyhow, in the next study, they will tell again that environmental factors are not that important. I mean how much s#$% still has to drop on our heads until we wake up and realize that our current lifestyles and economic system will inevitably drive us into a slow and agonizing death. I am living in Beijing, and on many days in the year it looks here like in those end-time movie dramas. You literally can’t breathe, I have been to BK, Ulaanbataar and many other cities in Asia. If you go to the coal mines in China, the air is grey, there is dust everywhere, those places are really like hell on earth. There is so much suffering caused by our irresponsible consume behavior- seeing it sometimes makes me sick to the stomach. Cheers

  • Dolores Claesson

    I am very interested in this research because people with “lyme” disease are immunocompromised and show up with all the opportunistic pathogens of AIDS patients as well. They have received many bacterial, viral, protozoal and other parasitical infections from the tick and then all the latent viruses and other pathogens are turned on. Seems as if our B lymphocytes then start viral replication of EBV and CMV. Autoimmunity is also the cause given by the IDSA as to why people have persistent symptoms with lyme disease. Might we also have a similar problem with inteferon gamma which is necessary to eradicate intracellular pathogens of bacteria, viruses and parasites. It is also being considerered that HIV needs parasites to segue into full blown AIDS. Where is the research on tick borne pathogens from the NIH to help our children who are not able to live a normal life or attend school ?? We need help because this is a world wide epidemic that is being shoved under the rug. I am thoroughly disgusted with the lack of research and medical attention that is being directed towards this issue. There may be synergy in research between these two groups who are immune compromised. IDSA guidelines for the treatment of tickborne pathogens or lyme disease should be used as toilet paper.

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