Can Cocaine Use Make You More Likely to Get HIV?

A new study shows that cocaine exposure can damage T cell receptors, increase their susceptibility to HIV infection, and increase virus production.

BY Nicholas Cimarusti

October 18 2013 4:47 AM ET

More bad news for users of Bolivian marching powder. A new study from the UCLA AIDS Institute published in the October issue of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology reveals that cocaine can increase cell susceptibility to HIV infection.

The connection between drug use and the spread of HIV is not novel — needle sharing and high-risk sexual activity among drug users has long been an issue— but, according to UCLA, this new research shows that cocaine exposure negatively affects quiescent CD4 T cells, a class of immune system cells that are resistant to HIV. Not only does the narcotic cause these cells to become vulnerable to infection, but it also seems to enable new production of the virus.

Of cocaine-exposed cell reaction to HIV, Dimitrios Vatakis, the study's senior author and an assistant professor of medicine in the division of hematology–oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said, "We found that cocaine mediates its effects directly, inducing minimal changes in the physiology of these cells and utilizing the same pathways it uses to target the brain."

These minimal changes occur when cocaine causes two receptors in the T cells, σ1 and D4, to become vulnerable to the virus. Since the studies were conducted in vitro and the cells could only be briefly exposed to cocaine (as opposed to utilizing the cells of a chronic user), the study results are not entirely conclusive.

Still, the findings are strong enough to suggest that cocaine use increases the chance that T cells are susceptible to HIV infection as a result of their drug-weakened condition.

A deeper understanding of how cocaine changes T cell receptor physiology and increases the pool of vulnerable T cells is the next stage in research. 

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