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Primate Form of HIV Kills Chimps Early

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Sometimes dirty work pays off. For Rebecca Rudicell, almost three years of studying chimpanzee feces has led to new insight into how an AIDS-like disease develops in wild African chimpanzees.

“I have the very glamorous job of spending my days (studying) chimpanzee feces,” jokes Rudicell, a student in an Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded program to teach graduate students about medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

“The thought had always been that this virus didn’t hurt chimpanzees, but it looks to us like they are dying at higher rates. We were not expecting this,” Rebecca Rudicell.

African primates are naturally infected with more than 40 different strains of simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIVs), two of which have crossed the species barrier to give rise to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV infection is well known to cause AIDS but until now it was thought that SIV infection in its various primate hosts did not cause disease.

Rudicell and her colleagues have used chimpanzee droppings to learn more about the distribution of apes infected with SIV. Over the past three years, Rudicell has processed and analyzed about 500 specimens collected by trackers at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, the research home of chimpanzee expert and conservationist Jane Goodall.

Rudicell extracts DNA from the feces to confirm the chimp’s identity. Then she analyzes the samples for the presence of SIV. “It’s a labor-intensive process,” she says. “But there’s something thrilling about working with a sample from a wild chimpanzee living halfway around the world.”

That effort paid off with a stunning finding: Some chimps infected with SIV develop AIDS-like symptoms and die early. Previously, researchers believed SIV was harmless in apes and monkeys, a dogma that Rudicell and her mentor, Beatrice Hahn, a professor of medicine and microbiology at UAB, are now beginning to overturn with research findings published July 23, 2009, in the journal Nature. Goodall and several of her Gombe colleagues are co-authors on the paper.

“The thought had always been that this virus didn’t hurt chimpanzees, but it looks to us like they are dying at higher rates,” Rudicell says. “We were not expecting this.”