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Wednesday, August 11, 1999

AIDS clue from body frozen for 30 years

The frozen body of a boy prostitute who died in 1969 from something "highly unusual" was later found infected with a strain of HIV, pushing back the first recorded AIDS case in the United States by a decade.

The findings, presented at the 11th International Congress of Virology in Sydney yesterday, suggest the virus mutated for hundreds of years before becoming a pandemic in recent times, challenging beliefs it came from monkeys.

Unaware of HIV/AIDS at the time, doctors at St Louis City Hospital froze tissue samples from a 15-year-old male prostitute from St Louis, after his death from Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancer now linked to AIDS.

Professor Robert F. Garry, from the Tulane University Medical Centre in New Orleans, said the cancer at the time was more common among middle-aged Mediterranean men.

"There was a suspicion this [boy] had a disease that was highly unusual ... 15-year-old [boys] don't usually die from Kaposi's sarcoma," he said. "That's really what prompted pathologists and virologists to keep this sample but it's fortunate that they kept them frozen."

Professor Garry said the strain of virus found infected T-cells while current viruses infected macrophages, which were more adapted to infecting people through sexual transmission.

The AIDS pandemic resulted when the virus mutated to the more infectious strain, he said. "So this pushes back at least the origins of HIV quite a few years ... our research shows that the virus has probably been here for centuries, 100 years or more. Something changed, that allowed it to spread pandemically."

The theory challenged beliefs the virus came from monkeys.

"Some people believe the virus came from monkeys as little as 50 years ago but if you believe the virus leapt from chimps to man in 50 years, you have to assume a very high rate of viral evolution," he said.

"It's entirely possible HIV is an entirely human virus in which case the monkey virus evolved among monkeys and the human virus evolved in humans which would put the split between the viruses perhaps 100,000 years or more, when humans and monkeys diverged," he said.

"That's an extreme prediction but entirely possible." - AAP

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