The structure of sexual contact networks plays a key role in the epidemiology of sexually transmitted infections, and their reconstruction from interview data has provided valuable insights into the spread of infection. For HIV, the long period of infectivity has made the interpretation of contact networks more difficult, and major discrepancies have been observed between the contact network and the transmission network revealed by viral phylogenetics. The high rate of HIV evolution in principle allows for detailed reconstruction of links between virus from different individuals, but often sampling has been too sparse to describe the structure of the transmission network. The aim of this study was to analyze a high-density sample of an HIV-infected population using recently developed techniques in phylogenetics to infer the short-term dynamics of the epidemic among men who have sex with men (MSM).
Methods and Findings
Sequences of the protease and reverse transcriptase coding regions from 2,126 patients, predominantly MSM, from London were compared: 402 of these showed a close match to at least one other subtype B sequence. Nine large clusters were identified on the basis of genetic distance; all were confirmed by Bayesian Monte Carlo Markov chain (MCMC) phylogenetic analysis. Overall, 25% of individuals with a close match with one sequence are linked to 10 or more others. Dated phylogenies of the clusters using a relaxed clock indicated that 65% of the transmissions within clusters took place between 1995 and 2000, and 25% occurred within 6 mo after infection. The likelihood that not all members of the clusters have been identified renders the latter observation conservative.
Reconstruction of the HIV transmission network using a dated phylogeny approach has revealed the HIV epidemic among MSM in London to have been episodic, with evidence of multiple clusters of transmissions dating to the late 1990s, a period when HIV prevalence is known to have doubled in this population. The quantitative description of the transmission dynamics among MSM will be important for parameterization of epidemiological models and in designing intervention strategies.
Using viral genotype data from HIV drug resistance testing at a London clinic, Andrew Leigh Brown and colleagues derive the structure of the transmission network through phylogenetic analysis.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), is mainly spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner. Like other sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS spreads through networks of sexual contacts. The characteristics of these complex networks (which include people who have serial sexual relationships with single partners and people who have concurrent sexual relationships with several partners) affect how quickly diseases spread in the short term and how common the disease is in the long term. For many sexually transmitted diseases, sexual contact networks can be reconstructed from interview data. The information gained in this way can be used for partner notification so that transmitters of the disease and people who may have been unknowingly infected can be identified, treated, and advised about disease prevention. It can also be used to develop effective community-based prevention strategies.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although sexual contact networks have provided valuable information about the spread of many sexually transmitted diseases, they cannot easily be used to understand HIV transmission patterns. This is because the period of infectivity with HIV is long and the risk of infection from a single sexual contact with an infected person is low. Another way to understand the spread of HIV is through phylogenetics, which examines the genetic relatedness of viruses obtained from different individuals. Frequent small changes in the genetic blueprint of HIV allow the virus to avoid the human immune response and to become resistant to antiretroviral drugs. In this study, the researchers use recently developed analytical methods, viral sequences from a large proportion of a specific HIV-infected population, and information on when each sample was taken, to learn about transmission of HIV/AIDS in London among men who have sex with men (MSM; a term that encompasses gay, bisexual, and transgendered men and heterosexual men who sometimes have sex with men). This new approach, which combines information on viral genetic variation and viral population dynamics, is called “molecular phylodynamics.”
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers compared the sequences of the genes encoding the HIV-1 protease and reverse transcriptase from more than 2,000 patients, mainly MSM, attending a large London HIV clinic between 1997 and 2003. 402 of these sequences closely matched at least one other subtype B sequence (the HIV/AIDS epidemic among MSM in the UK primarily involves HIV subtype B). Further analysis showed that the patients from whom this subset of sequences came formed six clusters of ten or more individuals, as well as many smaller clusters, based on the genetic relatedness of their HIV viruses. The researchers then used information on the date when each sample was collected and a “relaxed clock” approach (which accounts for the possibility that different sequences evolve at different rates) to determine dated phylogenies (patterns of genetic relatedness that indicate when gene sequences change) for the clusters. These phylogenies indicated that at least in one in four transmissions between the individuals in the large clusters occurred within 6 months of infection, and that most of the transmissions within each cluster occurred over periods of 3–4 years during the late 1990s.
What Do These Findings Mean?
This phylodynamic reconstruction of the HIV transmission network among MSM in a London clinic indicates that the HIV epidemic in this population has been episodic with multiple clusters of transmission occurring during the late 1990s, a time when the number of HIV infections in this population doubled. It also suggests that transmission of the virus during the early stages of HIV infection is likely to be an important driver of the epidemic. Whether these results apply more generally to the MSM population at risk for transmitting or acquiring HIV depends on whether the patients in this study are representative of that group. Additional studies are needed to determine this, but if the patterns revealed here are generalizable, then this quantitative description of HIV transmission dynamics should help in the design of strategies to strengthen HIV prevention among MSM.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050050.
Read a related PLoS Medicine Perspective article
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on HIV infection and AIDS
HIV InSite has comprehensive information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including a list of organizations that provide information for gay men and MSM
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on HIV/AIDS and on HIV/AIDS among MSM (in English and Spanish)
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity, on HIV, AIDS, and men who have sex with men
The Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (University of California, San Francisco) provides information on sexual networks and HIV prevention
The US National Center for Biotechnology Information provides a science primer on molecular phylogenetics
UK Collaborative Group on HIV Drug Resistance maintains a database of resistance tests
HIV i-Base offers HIV treatment information for health-care professionals and HIV-positive people
The NIH-funded HIV Sequence Database contains data on genetic sequences, resistance, immunology, and vaccine trials