September 8, 2017
This article originally appeared on The Body.
An estimated 22% of trans women in the U.S. live with HIV, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Until now, the prevailing assumption was that most of these women acquired HIV from anal sex with men who have sex with men (MSM), Gus Cairns noted on aidsmap. Hong-Ha M. Truong, Ph.D., M.S., M.P.H. from the University of California San Francisco presented a study of phylogenetic transmission clusters at the 9th IAS Conference on HIV Science that casts doubt on this assumption. Rather, many transgender women seroconvert because they or their sexual partners are intravenous drug users (IDU), and many of the women’s male sex partners may be heterosexual men rather than MSM, study authors concluded.
Phylogenetics studies the connections among genetic material to better understand how biological entities evolved. In this case, researchers tracked the genetic differences between the various HIV viruses to determine which viruses’ genes were extremely similar. These viruses probably evolved from a common “ancestor,” which means that participants with such genetically similar HIV versions likely were in close contact with each other. Phylogenetic tracing thus allows researchers to group people living with HIV into “transmission clusters” — groups with highly similar HIV who likely transmitted or acquired the virus within that cluster. Many of these clusters include only two people, but some are bigger.