Genetic Testing Tools for HIV/AIDS

March 2, 2007 at 9:36 am  •  Posted in HIV/AIDS by  •  0 Comments


In recent years, medical advances have produced revolutionary treatments for people with HIV that slow the progression of the disease and prolong life. Unfortunately, various strains of the HIV virus are also evolving, becoming increasingly resistant to drug treatments, which may lead to the drugs or medication therapies failing. Genetic testing is now used for people with HIV to help identify drug-resistant HIV strains so that physicians can prescribe the most effective treatment options.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a disease that destroys or damages a type of white blood cell (CD4 T-cells) in the immune system and progressively decreases the body’s ability to fight infections and certain cancers. The virus causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

People with AIDS have a significantly reduced number of healthy white blood cells, and therefore become more susceptible to life-threatening infections caused by microbes that rarely cause illness in healthy people.

Although there is no cure, treatment for HIV has advanced with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which suppresses the virus. However, HIV is constantly replicating and can mutate so that antiretroviral medications designed to treat a certain strain of virus are no longer effective.

Drug resistance is the most common reason why medication therapies fail. People with HIV may have several different strains of the virus, so determining the optimal treatment option becomes more difficult.

Types of Genetic Tests

Two types of genetic tests are available to determine if a resistant strain of HIV is present in a person using HAART: phenotype and genotype testing. Phenotype testing measures the amount of drug required to completely stop HIV replication in a blood sample. In contrast, genotype testing identifies the mutations in the genetic structure of the virus that have been linked with drug resistance.

Genetic analysis of HIV/AIDS helps researchers to better track the patterns of disease transmission, and to better understand how the virus affects the human body. No one test is sufficient for making treatment decisions.

People with HIV/AIDS work with a variety of professionals who diagnose and treat the disease and help manage the physical and mental health and social issues related to the disease. Social work professionals play an important role in the disease management team.

Social workers employed in community human services agencies, hospitals, and in private practice help people with HIV/AIDS to decide whether or not to have genetic testing and to understand the implications of test results. Additionally, social workers coordinate community services and help their clients address the life changes that often accompany a diagnosis of this life-threatening disease.

Source material:  HIV/AIDS: Understanding the Role of Genetics by Evelyn P. Tomaszewski, MSW, published in the NASW Specialty Practice Sections Health Connection, Spring 2005.

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