Sep. 30, 2013 — Cocaine use may increase one’s vulnerability to HIV infection, according to a new research report published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology. In the report, scientists show that cocaine alters immune cells, called “quiescent CD4 T cells,” to render them more susceptible to the virus, and at the same time, to allow for increased proliferation of the virus.
“We ultimately hope that our studies will provide a better understanding of how drugs of abuse impact how our body defends itself against disease,” said Dimitrios N. Vatakis, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and a scientist with UCLA’s Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology-Oncology and the UCLA AIDS Institute. “Such discovery can significantly improve the quality of life of drug users.”
To make this discovery, scientists collected blood from healthy human donors and isolated quiescent CD4 T cells, and exposed them to cocaine and subsequently infected them with HIV. Following infection, researchers monitored the progression of HIV’s life cycle and compared this progression against that of untreated cells. They found that cocaine rendered this subset of CD4 T cells susceptible to HIV, resulting in significant infection and new virus production.
“The co-epidemics of elicit drug use and infectious disease are well documented, though typically this connection is thought to occur through lifestyle choices and increased exposure,” said John Wherry, Ph.D., Deputy Editor of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology. “What often does not come to mind is that drugs such as cocaine may be helping to fuel infections in this high-risk population by altering the immune system. These new studies are an important advance documenting how cocaine use may increase a person’s vulnerability to HIV and further highlighting the need for improved education for both HIV prevention and drug abstinence.”