“The HIV was either highly mobile or effectively trapped. It was two extremes.”
Lai said when the research team tried to find a connection between the samples and their ability to block HIV, they could not find a clear correlation.
“The only thing that turned out interesting was that a particular form of lactic acid, what we call d-isomer of the lactic acid, was elevated, was present in greater quantities in women whose mucus was able to effectively trap HIV,” Lai said.
Humans are unable to produce this particular form of lactic acid, which led Lai and his team to conclude the bacteria present is responsible for ability to prevent HIV.
Lai said it is unknown whether the causes of differences in the mucus were genetic or environmental. But researchers found those mucuses that were unable to trap HIV are often found in women in developing countries.
Dr. David Wohl, an associate professor of medicine at UNC, said he believes this study is an important step in changing clinical practice.
“We are on the cusp of a really incredible revolution that this and other studies are helping to ensure,” Wohl said.
“Specifically, we are learning that germs in our body play a role. They are not there just to hangout; germs are not just there to compost the food we eat but that they are active. They are sending chemical signals that affect our health and can protect us from other types of infection.”
With this study, Wohl said there is increased interest in examining the use of bacteria to help protect and cure instead of antibiotics, which wipe out bacteria.
“We’re very interested in manipulating the microbiome for beneficial purposes,” Wohl said.
UNC is one of the world’s leaders in HIV research according to Dr. Peter Leone, a professor of medicine at UNC. In addition to research, UNC runs clinical trials in North Carolina, Africa and Latin America.
“UNC has a very large global footprint around HIV treatment, prevention and cure,” Leone said.
Leone said because new research allows doctors to prevent and treat HIV, there are compelling and ethical reasons to prioritize HIV.
“What’s unique about HIV is that it strikes people during the most productive period of their life,” Leone said. “Meaning that it has profound impacts on the family structure in the economies of countries because you’re losing individuals frequently in their 30s and 40s from HIV, and it can be transmitted from mother to infant.”