Re: More on the photo 25 June 2004
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Brian T Foley,
HIV Researcher
Los Alamos National Lab, Los Alamos, NM 87545

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Re: Re: More on the photo

The Perth group wrote:
Christopher Noble's pictures raise some interesting questions. Being HIV experts, Christopher Noble and Brian Foley undoubtedly are aware that the H9 cell line, like the MT-1 cell line, originated from patients with adult T4 cell leukaemia. This disease is said to be caused by HTLV-I. In fact, as far back as 1983 Gallo showed that the H9 cell line is infected with HTLV-I. The H9 cell line is the cell line most extensively used in HIV research. The questions then are (i) why have Christopher Noble and Brian Foley never mentioned that in the H9 cell line there is a "real soup" of retroviruses and (ii) how do Christopher Noble and Brian Foley distinguish between what is "HIV" and what is HTLV-I in this cell line?

As far as I know, ALL eukaryotic cells, and certainly all vertebrate cells including mammalian cells contain dozens to hundreds of endogenous retroviral genomes, some of which can become activated under some conditions. Although HTLV-I, HTLV-II and other complex retroviruses have never been found in an endogenous state (found in the germ-line cells) in any organism, once they have integrated into the genomic DNA of a cell there is little difference. The integrated virus may or may not be replication-competent in any cell line derived from a cell with an integrated provirus.

I am not an expert on the H9 and MT-1 cell lines, and I am not sure, without doing some research, whether or not they actively produce HTLV-I viral particles. However, if they did actively produce retroviral particles when infected with HIV-1, then the virus particles produced would be a mixture of HTLV-I and HIV-1 which would then mean that the RNA from those particles would hybridize to both clones containing HIV-1 proviruses, and HTLV-I proviruses when a genomic library of the infected cells was probed. Gallo’s group, Montagnier’s group, Levy’s group, and dozens of others who have screened genomic libraries of HIV-infected cells have all obtained HIV-1 genomic clones, and none reported any problems with pulling out HTLV-I clones in addition to the HIV-1 clones, so I am assuming that the H9 and MT-1 cell lines do not actively produce HTLV-I virions when they are producing HIV-1 virions.

The answer to how we know an HIV-1 genome from an HTLV-I genome or an endogenous retrovirus genome seems to be the heart of the Perth group’s whole misunderstanding about virology. Looking at a photograph of any virus will never tell us exactly which virus it is. It is useful for determining whether the virus is a retrovirus or a herpesvirus, but it is not very useful for determining what type of retrovirus or herpesvirus is in the culture. Serology and molecular biology (nucleic acid hybridizations, DNA sequencing, RFLP analysis, protein sequencing, etc) are absolutely necessary for studying any virus. The Perth group probably does contain members who know enough molecular biology to know the difference between a probe and a clone, but they are not coming forward in this discussion.

It is quite reasonable for anyone to not understand enough molecular biology to clearly see why we know that a HIV-1 genome is a lentivirus and not an endogenous retrovirus or an HTLV-like virus. What is unreasonable, is attempting to convince a government, such as the government of South Africa, that HIV might not exist or has not been properly studied, just because you do not understand how viruses are studied. To make claims that there are certain rules for virus isolation, when in fact those rules do not and never did exist, is lying. If the parties listening to those lies believe them, the health of a great many people is at risk.

So far, there is no solid evidence that the South African government was totally fooled by the Perth group’s clever disinformation. The government reports that it is proceeding with antiretroviral therapy roll-out, HIV infection prevention programs, and other efforts to stem its AIDS epidemic. This “debate” in South Africa and elsewhere has surely confused many people, and has probably made it more difficult to carry out prevention programs which require that people understand what viruses are and how they can and cannot be transmitted.

Competing interests: None declared