THURSDAY, April 8, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers have identified a previously unknown way that women are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The study, published in the April 8 issue of the journal PLoS Pathogens, shows HIV can break down the mucosal barrier in the intestinal and female genital tract, allowing the virus to cross during intercourse.
Prior to this study, many scientists believed that HIV invaded women's reproductive tract after some sort of trauma, such as a small tear during intercourse. This is the first time researchers have pinpointed HIV itself as the possible culprit.
The breakdown in protection appears to be caused by inflammatory factors produced when HIV binds to epithelial cells. The tight junctions between the protective cells are destroyed, which gives HIV access to the inside of the body in order to infect immune cells, the Canadian study authors noted.
"This is a significant step forward in defining where prevention strategies, such as microbicides and vaccines, need to focus. Instead of trying to stop HIV from infecting the target cells underneath the [protective barrier], we need to think about ways to stop the virus from attaching to epithelial cells themselves," lead researcher Charu Kaushic, an associate professor in the Centre for Gene Therapeutics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said in a university news release.
Women account for half of the 40 million people worldwide infected with HIV.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more about women and HIV.