Cocaine Use Makes Mice More Susceptible to HIV Infection, Study Finds

By May Wilkerson 06/22/15

Researchers found that cocaine weakened T cells and made the body more prone to infection.

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Cocaine may disrupt the immune system and put users at higher risk for contracting HIV, according to a growing body of research.

Researchers with the UCLA AIDS Institute and Center for AIDS Research studied the effects of cocaine on “humanized” mice—mice that have been genetically engineered to have a human-like immune system. Their latest research, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, found that when the humanized mice had cocaine in their system, they were significantly more susceptible to HIV infection.

"Substance use and abuse is a major issue, especially when it comes to HIV infection," said study author Dimitrios Vatakis, of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "There has been a general attitude, especially in the scientific but also the general community, that risky behavior is the main reason for higher infections. This study shows that under the same transmission conditions, drug exposure enhances infection through a collective of biological changes."

Vatakis and others on his team have been researching a connection between cocaine use and HIV infection for some time. In the past, they found that three-day exposure to the drug seemed to weaken a group of cells called quiescent CD4 T cells, which are resistant to HIV, making the body more susceptible to infection. But that study used a petri dish, which may have led to less accurate results.

The latest study was the first to involve living organisms. Researchers transplanted mice with human hematopoietic stem cells and donor-matched liver and thymus tissues to recreate a functioning human immune system. "This study is the first of its kind using this model," said Vatakis. "It very closely resembles the human immune system and it is the most relevant."

After injecting half of the mice with cocaine every day for five days, and then injecting all of them with HIV-1, researchers found that the cocaine mice had higher amounts of HIV than the control group. "This points to cocaine blunting the potency of our body's defense against the virus," said Vatakis.

But researchers note that the study has its limitations, in part because the mice—despite having human-like immune systems—are still mice, not humans. Also, the study is based on brief, uninterrupted exposure to cocaine. The results could be different in humans who use the drug more casually or chronically over a prolonged period of time.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.