Health Information: HIV And AIDS Explained

Explanation of the Human Immunodeficiency virus which leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, definitions of viral standards as well as symptoms.

Some years ago, there was a great movie on circuit called "The Body Snatchers". It was a gripping, edge-of-your-seat science fiction thriller starring Donald Sutherland.

The story was very simple. These aliens (I forget how they landed on earth or what they looked like) planned to take over the world by taking over the bodies of humans. They somehow sucked the essence of the human out, and replaced that essence with their own. So you had all of these people who looked like human beings, but were, in fact, aliens. You only knew the difference when they opened their mouths and shrieked instead of talked.

Donald Sutherland's character figured out what was happening and tried to stop them from taking over the world. The trick was to avoid being caught by the aliens, because then they would be able to suck out your essence and take over your body. They got him in the end, unfortunately.

HIV is the story of the Body Snatchers all over again, in real life, taking place in the human body. The HIV virus is the alien. Donald Sutherland plays the part of a CD4 T-lymphocyte immune cell. The rest of the story is very much the same, but in this particular case, Dr. Science can give us quite a lot more information about how the aliens snatch the bodies.

The alien is made up of a single strand of RNA and some enzymes. In order to take over the immune system cells, it hooks onto a special receptor called CD4, and fuses with the cell.

If we changed the original Body Snatcher story to match, the aliens would only be able to take over the bodies of humans who had a special tattoo. It would hook onto that tattoo, and sneak under the human's skin.

Once under the skin of the CD4 T-lymphocyte cell, the virus has to set up house and start having children. To do this, it has to turn its RNA into DNA.

RNA is a single strand of genetic information, while DNA is a double strand. Think of it as single people and couples. The virus comes in as a single, but needs to be a couple in order to qualify for housing inside the cell. Because there are no dating clubs inside the cell, the virus has to make another plan, and that's why it brings along its own enzymes. These enzymes help the virus assemble a date from bits and pieces lying around in the cell, much like Dr. Frankenstein did.

The virus has arms and legs called thymidine, cytosine, adenosine and guanine. With the help of an enzyme called Reverse Transcriptase, these arms and legs can shake hands (and feet) with the thymine, cytosine, adenosine and guanine lying around the cell. More specifically, the adenosine shakes with thymine, and the cytosine shakes with guanine, and hey presto! You have a couple, or a double strand of DNA.



Now the virus qualifies for housing. Only problem is, there's only one house, and it's already occupied. So the virus does what any young thug would do under the circumstances: it grabs an armful of an enzyme called integrase to break into the house and throw the existing occupants out, then takes over. Now we have a virus essence inside a T-lymphocyte body, and only the virus knows it.

The rest is easy. The virus takes over the reproductive organs, and the cell makes little baby viruses instead of baby immune cells. As soon as these are old enough to leave home, they march out into the bloodstream, find another T-lymphocyte cell and the whole process begins again and goes on and on until there are no T-lymphocyte cells left.

Luckily for the human body, there are a couple of Donald Sutherland characters tracking down the aliens and stopping them from taking over too many T-cells too soon. They'll get him in the end, of course, but he's the body's only hope until Dr. Science finds a cure. In the meantime, Dr. Science is giving our Donald Sutherland characters all the help he can.

Firstly, he's given them some lookalikes for the adenosine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. So when the virus tries the handshaking routine, it ends up with a dud. It doesn't even make it to the wedding, never mind to the DNA. These lookalikes are the drugs like AZT, and other nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors. Each different drug pretends to be a different arm or leg.

Secondly, he's found a way of leading the reverse transcriptase enzymes into temptation. They become so involved in Dr. Science's cute goodies that they forget to help the virus out with making its own date. These bags of goodies are the drugs called non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, which are less well-known than AZT but are proving very effective.

And thirdly, he's laid a major guilt trip on the baby viruses so they never leave home. They just can't cut those apron strings and go out into the big wide bloodstream all by themselves. These are the drugs called protease inhibitors, and offer the first real hope of turning AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable chronic illness.

Right now, Dr. Science is also trying to find ways of sabotaging the moving van, and even hiding the tattoos. He's also trying to find ways of posting "Wanted Dead or Alive" pictures all through the bloodstream, so that the virus can be wiped out the minute it sets foot in the place.

In the meantime, our Donald Sutherland characters are holding their own against the alien Body Snatchers, especially when equipped with two different lookalike arms plus either a bag of tempting goodies or a major guilt trip.

Let's hope that ultimately, our story will have a happier ending.

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