April 16, 2013

Study supports theory that circumcision reduces HIV risk

The study suggests that by reducing the number of anaerobic bacteria, circumcision may allow the body’s immune cells to better destroy the HIV virus.

Monte Morin / Los Angeles Times

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The study authors argue that the large populations of bacteria in uncircumcised men attract these T4 cells, giving the virus a means of entry during intercourse with an infected person. However, circumcised men are much less likely to mobilize these susceptible cells; therefore, the virus can be destroyed by other types of immune cells.

Dr. Alexandra Levine, chief medical officer at the City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif., said scientists have long been searching for the connection between circumcision and reduced HIV infection. The authors of the new study make a convincing argument, she said.

“This is an important paper in beginning to document what the reason might be,” said Levine, who was not involved in the research. “Their data are convincing to me.”

Price said that colleagues were already working on follow-up studies. If the connection can be proved, there might be less-invasive ways of altering bacterial populations that do not rely on circumcision.

“As a society, we’ve gotten used to thinking about alterations to the microbiome as having negative outcomes,” said Price, who is married to study leader Liu. “We think about the person who takes antibiotics in the hospital and ends up with an infection in their gut because we’ve knocked out the natural microbiota. But here’s a situation where we’re flipping that notion on its head. The disturbance of the microbiome could have a positive effect.”


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