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Unique genotypic features of HIV-1 C gp41 membrane proximal external region variants during pregnancy relate to mother-to-child transmission via breastfeeding


Mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) through breastfeeding remains a major source of pediatric HIV-1 infection worldwide. To characterize plasma HIV-1 subtype C populations from infected mothers during pregnancy that related to subsequent breast milk transmission, an exploratory study was designed to apply next generation sequencing and a custom bioinformatics pipeline for HIV-1 gp41 extending from heptad repeat region 2 (HR2) through the membrane proximal external region (MPER) and the membrane spanning domain (MSD). MPER harbors linear and highly conserved epitopes that repeatedly elicits HIV-1 neutralizing antibodies with exceptional breadth. Viral populations during pregnancy from women who transmitted by breastfeeding, compared to those who did not, displayed greater biodiversity, more frequent amino acid polymorphisms, lower hydropathy index and greater positive charge. Viral characteristics were restricted to MPER, failed to extend into flanking HR2 or MSD regions, and were unrelated to predicted neutralization resistance. Findings provide novel parameters to evaluate an association between maternal MPER variants present during gestation and lactogenesis with subsequent transmission outcomes by breastfeeding.


HIV-1 transmission through breastfeeding accounts for 39% of MTCT and continues as a major route of pediatric infection in developing countries where access to interventions for interrupting transmission is limited. Identifying women who are likely to transmit HIV-1 during breastfeeding would focus therapies, such as broad neutralizing HIV monoclonal antibodies (bn-HIV-Abs), during the breastfeeding period to reduce MTCT. Findings from our pilot study identify novel characteristics of gestational viral MPER quasispecies related to transmission outcomes and raise the possibility for predicting MTCT by breastfeeding based on identifying mothers with high-risk viral populations.

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