Human Immunodeficiency Virus/AIDS

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Although many viruses cause suppression of the immune system, only one wipes it out completely, and that is the previously mentioned HIV. It is worth discussing the biology of this virus, which can lead to the well-known AIDS, so that its full effects on the immune system can be understood. The virus is transmitted through semen, vaginal fluids, and blood, and can be caught by risky sexual behaviors and the sharing of needles by intravenous drug users. There are sometimes, but not always, flu-like symptoms in the first 1 to 2 weeks after infection. This is later followed by seroconversion. The anti-HIV antibodies formed during seroconversion are the basis for most initial HIV screening done in the United States. Because seroconversion takes different lengths of time in different individuals, multiple AIDS tests are given months apart to confirm or eliminate the possibility of infection.

After seroconversion, the amount of virus circulating in the blood drops and stays at a low level for several years. During this time, the levels of CD4+ cells, especially helper T cells, decline steadily, until at some point, the immune response is so weak that opportunistic disease and eventually death result. HIV uses CD4 as the receptor to get inside cells, but it also needs a co-receptor, such as CCR5 or CXCR4. These co-receptors, which usually bind to chemokines, present another target for anti-HIV drug development. Although other antigen-presenting cells are infected with HIV, given that CD4+ helper T cells play an important role in T cell immune responses and antibody responses, it should be no surprise that both types of immune responses are eventually seriously compromised.

Treatment for the disease consists of drugs that target virally encoded proteins that are necessary for viral replication but are absent from normal human cells. By targeting the virus itself and sparing the cells, this approach has been successful in significantly prolonging the lives of HIV-positive individuals. On the other hand, an HIV vaccine has been 30 years in development and is still years away. Because the virus mutates rapidly to evade the immune system, scientists have been looking for parts of the virus that do not change and thus would be good targets for a vaccine candidate.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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