GB virus C, a positive-stranded RNA virus, is classified in the family Flaviviridae. It is currently believed that persistent infection occurs in 25-50% of infected individuals, however, it still remains an "orphan" virus in search of a role in human pathology. Molecular epidemiological studies have demonstrated that GBV-C infection is present in about 1-1.4% of the healthy population in developed countries, that it shares routes of transmission with HIV and HCV and that the prevalence of GBV-C in these populations is higher than in blood donors. On the basis of the sequence variation among the isolates, GBV-C is classified into at least four major genotypes. Preliminary evidence has suggested that GBV-C is a lymphotropic virus that replicates mainly in the spleen and bone marrow. Recently, several reports have investigated the possible beneficial effect of GBV-C co-infection on HIV disease progression to AIDS, reduced mortality in HIV infected individuals and lower HIV viral loads, not leading to a definitive conclusion yet.
To investigate the role of GBV virus C co-infection in two different subsets of HIV-infected patients, and to evaluate the prevalence of GBV-C genotypes in Northern Italy.
A total of 86 HIV positive patients were examined for GBV-C viremia (years after HIV sera conversion: 12 +/- 5). Control population (Group A): 46 patients (mean age 42 years) with <200CD4/ml during the observation period. Longterm non progressor population (Group B): 40 patients, (mean age 40 years) with >500 CD4/ml for at least 8 years and never treated with HAART. After extraction of viral RNA from plasma samples, amplification of a highly conserved region of 5'UTR was performed by nested RT-PCR. All positive samples were genotyped by sequencing, alignment with published sequences and phylogenetic analysis. CD4 cell count, HIV plasma levels were also evaluated.
9 out of 46 (19.56%) in Group A and 15 out of 40 (37.5%) in Group B had detectable GBV-C viremia (p=0.064, OR 2.47, percent confidence interval 0.94 to 6.51). No statistical difference was observed when disease stage was evaluated between the two groups. In Group B, after regression analysis for CD4 cell count decrease over the period observed, no significant difference was detected between GBV-C positive and negative patients. No significant difference was observed in Group B in HIV viremia and CD4 cell count at time of GBV-C detection between GBV-C infected patients and GBV-C negative patients. All Italian patients were genotype 2, the only African patient carried GBV-C genotype 1.
Although previous results suggest that GBV-C virus may be a favorable marker for long term non progression of HIV disease, whether it plays a direct anti-HIV role or just takes advantage of non progessors' higher CD4 cell count to replicate more efficiently, still remains to be answered. Follow up of untreated patients and further evaluation of virological interactions, between the viruses and the host immune system, will be helpful to shed some light on these observations, offering new prognostic and eventually therapeutical tools for the management of HIV patients.