GW researchers study spread of HIV cases in the District

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Keith Crandall, a professor of biology and the director of GW’s Computational Biology Institute, said the study’s results were based on data collected from clinics in D.C.

HIV in the D.C. area is growing increasingly resistant to drug treatments, a study by two professors in the Milken Institute School of Public Health found.

The study, published last month, found 15 subtypes of HIV virus in D.C. and showed that the group most frequently infected with HIV in the city was men who have sex with other men, a number that researchers found has been steadily increasing. The study will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of public health campaigns on clean needles and safe sex designed to limit the spread of the virus, researchers said.

GW researchers Marcos Pérez-Losada and Keith Crandall spent four years collecting data for the study, which was published Sept. 29. It examined the virus’s makeup in infected patients and where in the District patients were concentrated to understand how the virus has spread in the city.

D.C. has consistently had one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the U.S., with 371 new HIV cases reported in 2015, according to the study. Researchers examined the various strains of HIV that resist drug treatment and the speed at which new cases are being discovered in the District.

The team collaborated with the D.C. Department of Health, which helped collect HIV samples, and Labcorp, a private laboratory testing company that analyzed the genetics of the samples.

Pérez-Losada, an assistant professor of computational biology and lead author of the study, said the project will alert residents if there are particular groups or areas of the city that have a higher number of HIV cases than initially suspected.

“It turned out, to our surprise, there was no study of HIV in D.C.,” Pérez-Losada said. “We can try to use that to stop this transmission of HIV across different patients in the city.”

The team had to generate original data as part of the study, and he hopes future research will analyze how to control the spread of HIV, an area of research he said is still under-explored, he said.

“In fact, when we start to look at the HIV in D.C., there was not even genetic data collected for HIV population from this area,” he said. “That is kind of the trigger that we have to look at.”

Crandall – a professor of biology, director of GW’s Computational Biology Institute and a member of the study’s bioinformatics team – said the study’s results were based on data collected from clinics in D.C. If a patient at a clinic tested HIV-positive, the clinic would collect samples of the virus, information about the patient’s location, risk factors and demographics, he said.

“We’ve done a great job educating folks about HIV infection,” Crandall said.

Labcorp analyzed the genetic samples and sent the genetic data to researchers in the public health school. Crandall said the researchers compared the genetic data from Labcorp with the patient information collected at the clinic to analyze how the virus is spreading and changing.

Labcorp will continue to analyze samples and make the results available to the D.C. Department of Health and local researchers.

Researchers on the team used the data to track the virus’s spread and mutation. Biostatisticians can combine location data with genetic samples to determine new mutations of the virus or outbreaks, Crandall said.

Researchers will now be able to use the data to find individual genes that would make the virus immune to HIV medications, he added.

Crandall said researchers aim to build an automated bioinformatics pipeline, a computerized system that will automatically analyze new genetic samples of the virus, allowing researchers and public health officials to track the virus.

He said the study looks at making genetic data collected by doctors and private labs publicly available for researchers at the District of Columbia Center for AIDS Research. The D.C. Smart City Initiative and D.C. Center for AIDS Research are crucial partners in coordinating academia, government and private industry for the study, he said.

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