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Can Cocaine Cause Easy HIV Infections?

Can Cocaine Cause Easy HIV Infections?Author: Justin Mckibben

There may be one more reason to stay away from cocaine, beyond of course crippling addiction with the power to strip all manageability and happiness from your life. We all know drugs like cocaine already come with a laundry list of side-effects, and if we don’t then we should, but now new research is suggesting the ‘devils dandruff’ may also weaken the immune system enough to put those who sniff or shoot this stuff at an elevated risk for contracting HIV.

Of Mice and Men

The teams of researchers involved in one study work in coordination with the UCLA AIDS Institute and Center for AIDS Research, collectively studying the effects of cocaine on “humanized” mice.

Humanized mice are defined as genetically engineered mice that are fix up to have a human-like immune systems, thus of course rendering results closer to actual human trials.

Researchers transplanted mice with human hematopoietic stem cells and donor-matched liver and thymus tissues to recreate a functioning human immune system. Dimitrios Vatakis, of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, was an author on the study who stated:

“It very closely resembles the human immune system and it is the most relevant.”

This week the researcher published their latest findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Reading the Results

One part setting this experiment apart from their previous work was it is the first to involve living organisms. Once these humanized mice had cocaine in their system the researchers determined they were significantly more susceptible to HIV infection.

After injecting half of the mice with cocaine every day for five days, and then injecting all of them with HIV-1, researchers found that the cocaine mice had higher amounts of HIV than the control group.

The importance of this variation is it points to cocaine blunting the potency of our body’s defense against the virus, making those exposed more prone to develop a resilient infection quicker.

Vatakis stated:

“Substance use and abuse is a major issue, especially when it comes to HIV infection. There has been a general attitude, especially in the scientific but also the general community, that risky behavior is the main reason for higher infections. This study shows that under the same transmission conditions, drug exposure enhances infection through a collective of biological changes.”

While this team had been searching for a link between cocaine abuse and HIV they have found other indications but none as substantial as this.

But this is not a set in stone proclamation of cocaine causing HIV infections, and researchers have noted the limitations of this study such as:

  1. The mice first and foremost, because even though they were bio-engineered with human-like immune systems they are still mice, not humans.
  2. Secondly, this data is based on brief, uninterrupted exposure to cocaine. The results could be different in humans who use the drug more casually or chronically over a prolonged period of time.

In the past Vatakis and his team had even discovered a three-day exposure to cocaine seemed to weaken a group of cells called quiescent CD4 T cells, which are resistant to HIV, making the body more susceptible to infection. However, this study had a possibility of rendering far less accurate data having used a petri dish instead of mice.

Still, the team believes this is a step in the right direction for discerning whether or not there is a drastic enough impact to the body’s immune system to warrant a more direct correlation to HIV infections.

Or course drugs are already pretty bad for the immune system, so it is plausible to consider excessive exposure to narcotics would weaken the body’s defenses, especially with risky behaviors like sharing straws, using dirty needles and any other surfaces with the possibility of exchanging blood and bodily fluids.

This research intends to prove it is more about the drugs and their effects, and less about the risk behaviors associated with it.

With all drug abuse there is risk, and sometimes the risks are far more than we even expect. More awareness should be brought not just to the disease of addiction, but to other illnesses and adverse effects on our health, our lives and our communities. HIV is another deadly issue tied in with drug abuse, and people die every day from sicknesses they contract in active addiction.

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