Monday, June 27, 2011

How the AIDS virus became to be named human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

Harold Varmus—Nobel Laureate in Medicine—describes in his book “The ART and POLITICS of SCIENCE” how the AIDS retrovirus got its name [1]. When the debate over the name of the AIDS virus was in full swing, Varmus was head of the Retrovirus Study Group of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses (ICVT) and was charged with resolving the debate. At that time, when much less was known about this virus, other naming options had been proposed:

Lympadenopathy virus (LAV). This name was given by Frenchman Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute, following his observations with the electron microscope on cells from the swollen lymph glands of patients developing AIDS symptoms. However this term did not conform to the usual format that includes the species in which the virus was found and the resultant pathology.

Human T cell leukemia virus/III (HTLV-III). This name indicates species (human) and pathology (leukemia). But the AIDS virus did not appear to cause leukemia. The name-proposing scientist, Robert Gallo of the National Institute of Health (NIH), therefore, let the L stand for lymphotropic (a term meaning that the virus preferentially infected lymphoid cell, compare with L in LAV) to be in line with his previous discovery of HTLV viruses. Yet, the HTLV-AIDS similarity is too weak to justify name anology. As Varmus writes, their are significant differences with respect to genetic content, shape of the virus particle, disease spectrum, and even multiplication strategy.

HTLV-III/LAV. This designation was a compromise thought to satisfy both of the above mentioned proposals. But a slashed notation is often used to indicate a combination rather than an alternative, such that the term HTLV-III/LAV could be misinterpreted as a virus double pack.

Many more options were generated, typically by inserting some word(s) between human (H) and virus (V). Finally, in May 1986 agreement upon the name human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was reached—a term and an acronym now globally recognized.

HIV belongs to Class VI in the Baltimore Classification system, the class of retroviruses relying on reverse transcription via a double-stranded DNA for replication.

[1] Harold Varmus: The Art and Politics of Science. W. W. Norton & Comany, New York and London, 2009; pages 128 to 130.

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