News Release
March 2, 2015

Gorilla Origins of the Last Two AIDS Virus Lineages Confirmed

Penn Study Has Implications for Understanding Genesis of Emerging Diseases

PHILADELPHIA – Two of the four known groups of human AIDS viruses (HIV-1 groups O and P) have originated in western lowland gorillas, according to an international team of scientists from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Montpellier, the University of Edinburgh, and others. The scientists, led by Martine Peeters from Montpellier, conducted a comprehensive survey of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) infection in African gorillas. Beatrice Hahn, MD, a professor of Medicine and Microbiology, and others from Penn were part of the team, whose findings appear online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

HIV-1, the virus that causes AIDS, has jumped species to infect humans on at least four separate occasions, generating four HIV-1 lineages -- groups M, N, O, and P. Previous research from this team found that groups M and N originated in geographically distinct chimpanzee communities in southern Cameroon, but the origins of groups O and P remained uncertain. 

The four cross-species transmissions have had very different outcomes in humans. Group M gave rise to the AIDS pandemic, infecting more than 40 million people worldwide by spreading across Africa and throughout the rest of the world. Groups N and P, at the other extreme, have only been found in a few individuals from Cameroon. However, group O, although not as widespread and prevalent as group M, has nonetheless infected about 100,000 people in west central Africa.

The team screened fecal samples from western lowland gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas, and mountain gorillas in Cameroon, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda for evidence of SIVgor infection. They identified four field sites in southern Cameroon  where western lowland gorillas harbor SIVgor.

“Viral sequencing revealed a high degree of genetic diversity among the different gorilla samples,” explains Hahn. “Two of the gorilla virus lineages were particularly closely related to HIV-1 groups O and P. This told us that these two groups originated in western lowland gorillas.”

“Understanding emerging disease origins is critical to gauge future human infection risks,” adds Peeters. “From this study and others that our team has conducted in the past it has become clear that both chimpanzees and gorillas harbor viruses that are capable of crossing the species barrier to humans and have the potential to cause major disease outbreaks.”

This work was funded in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH R37 AI50529, R01 AI 058715, P30 AI 045008, R37 AI 066998, R01 AI064001, AI 089246).

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $5.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 18 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $373 million awarded in the 2015 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2015, Penn Medicine provided $253.3 million to benefit our community.

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