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Trends Microbiol. 2008 Dec;16(12):555-60. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2008.09.004. Epub 2008 Oct 30.

Why is HIV a pathogen?

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  • 1MRC/UCL Centre for Medical Molecular Virology, Division of Infection and Immunity, University College London, 46 Cleveland Street, London W1T 4JF, UK.


The pathogenesis of HIV begins with a profound depletion of CD4+ T cells in the gut followed by a long period of clinically silent but dynamic virus replication and diversification with high host cell turnover before the onset of AIDS. The AIDS-defining opportunistic infections and tumors mark the end-point of a long balancing act between virus and host that occurs when CD4+ T cell numbers fall below a level that can sustain immunity. Comparative studies of lentivirus infections in other species show that AIDS is not an inevitable outcome of infection because simian immunodeficiency virus in natural hosts seldom causes disease. What distinguishes pathogenic from 'passenger' infection is a systemic activation of immune responses followed by destruction of the integrity of lymphoid follicles. Macrophage and dendritic cell infection also contribute to pathogenesis. Maedi-Visna virus infection in sheep, which targets these cells but not T lymphocytes, also leads to progressive disease and death that resembles the wasting and brain diseases of HIV without the T cell immunodeficiency. Thus, lessons from pathogenic and nonpathogenic lentivirus infections provide insight into the complex syndrome called AIDS.

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