Scientists have confirmed that a cell responsible for early immune responses to infections also offers a way for HIV to escape from the effects of antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, according to a study appearing in the June issue of the Journal of Virology and reported by Medical News Today.

Follicular dendritic cells (FDCs) are immune system cells shaped like squid with long tentacles that latch onto viruses and bacteria. Ideally, FDCs present the trapped germs to CD4 cells, which can then trigger an immune system response. With HIV, however, scientists have wondered whether the FDCs gathered inside lymph nodes may also provide a sort of safe haven for the virus.

To determine what happens to HIV trapped by FDCs, Greg Burton, PhD, from Brigham Young University, and his colleagues performed a series of experiments where they slowly teased apart the tentacles of a cluster of FDCs and then analyzed the genetic makeup of the HIV trapped there.

Burton’s team found that even in people on ARV treatment, the HIV trapped in the FDCs was still infectious and capable of replicating. Moreover, the trapped virus had a wide degree of genetic variation, which is the opposite of what should happen when ARV treatment is effective in suppressing HIV replication. Further research will be needed to determine if there may be some way to clear out these reservoirs of infected cells.