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One might not think human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and computer viruses have much in common, but researchers at the University College London have recently discovered a striking similarity between the two. The study showed that the two types of viruses have a similar way of spreading throughout their domains with HIV infecting the cells and computer viruses affecting different computers with essentially the same process.

HIV is an extremely dangerous virus because of the way it attacks the immune system, the system body relies on to fight pathogens. The virus specifically targets the CD4+ cells (often called helper-T cells or T-cells), a type of white blood cell responsible for fighting infection. Destroying T-cells as well as using T-cell mechanisms to multiply causes the immune system to fail and leaves the body more susceptible to dangerous diseases. When too many T-cells are destroyed, and the body can no longer fight off infection, HIV turns into acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS usually results in eventual death.

 This is what an HIV virus looks like zoomed in.

Image Source: Science Photo Library – SCIEPRO

HIV has two different means of dispersion: it can travel through the bloodstream or transfer itself between individual cells in a process known as “cell-to-cell spread”. The first process, directly invading through the blood, is not very effective and would not be capable of causing AIDS alone. Cell-to-cell spread, which is found in other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as herpes and measles, allows an infected cell to infect neighboring cells directly without the virus needing to enter the environment outside the cells. This mechanism is convenient for the virus because the virus is able to move quickly and safely from one cell to another without being exposed to the immune system’s response. Researchers found that this technique is like computer viruses spreading from computer to computer, a similarity that led to the creation a mathematical model to simulate the spread of HIV accurately. The model highlights the importance of cell-to-cell spread for HIV.

Cell-to-cell spreading is responsible for most of the rapid diffusion of HIV among cells. It becomes more effective the longer an individual has the virus because more infected cells increases the rate of dispersion. This finding gives much insight to researchers attempting to pinpoint exactly how fast the disease can spread. Inhibiting cell-to-cell spreading would greatly reduce the negative effects of HIV by slowing it to the point where it could be stopped from ever becoming AIDS. The mathematical model also helps confirm the importance of early treatment when it comes to preventing the advancement of HIV to AIDS. Understanding HIV’s spread through the human body is the first step in finding better treatments and, maybe one day, a cure.

Feature Image Source: Red Ribbon _MG_0076 by Andy McCarthy

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