Health Buzz: Gene Variations May Explain HIV Control

Your own personal canine medical helper; dolphin moms do best with help from female friends.

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Genes Linked to HIV Control, Researchers Say

About 1 in every 300 people infected with HIV resist and control the virus—surviving for decades without symptoms and no need for medications. New research suggests these lucky patients may have rare variations in an immune system protein that explains their propensity to stay healthy. Researchers compared the genomes of about 1,000 HIV "controllers," whose bodies keep the infection in check, and 2,600 patients with progressive infections. The controllers had slight differences in five amino acids that form a protein called HLA-B, which helps the immune system destroy cells infected by a virus, according to findings published Thursday in Science. Understanding how some folks' immune response effectively fends off HIV could help in the development of a vaccine, researchers say. "For a long time, we've known that some people progress extremely rapidly when they get infected, and others can stay well for three decades and never need treatment and still look entirely well," study author Bruce Walker told Reuters. "We've got a clearer indication of why people can survive in the face of HIV, and we've gotten more focused in terms of the research we need to do to get where we've got to go."

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  • Your Own Personal Canine Medical Helper

    Dogs can be more than man's best friend—they can be lifesavers. From Chihuahuas to Labrador retrievers, dogs are increasingly complementing modern medicine, learning to defuse panic attacks, carry juice bottles to diabetics with low blood sugar, and even dial 911, U.S. News reports. "So many people with disabilities or medical conditions could benefit from a dog, and they don't always realize it," says Darlene Sullivan, an animal trainer who founded the nonprofit training group Canine Partners For Life in Cochranville, Pa.

    Dogs like those paired with people who are blind or hearing-impaired are specifically trained to head off problems and to detect and ease symptoms among those with conditions that put them at risk or compromise their life skills, such as paralysis, seizure disorders, and diabetes. Others make a difference simply by being there. College students who spend time with a dog are less likely to report feeling depressed and find that dogs help them cope with stress, according to a study published in Society and Animals in 2008. At Kent State University, "canine therapists" visit campus dorms, a program particularly popular among those lonely for a family pet. And Penn State University's counseling department employs Ernie, a year-old Affenpinscher who sits in on therapy sessions and spends one-on-one time with students. Ernie's presence makes those with mental and emotional issues feel better about seeking help, counselors say. Dozens of groups train and provide helpful canines, sometimes for free, but it's up to those who think they might benefit to seek one out. [Read more: Your Own Personal Canine Medical Helper.]

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    • Dolphin Moms Do Best With Help From Female Friends

      Being a mom is hard work, as any mom can tell you. No doubt that's why dolphins rely on their female friends to improve their chances of producing healthy, happy baby dolphins, writes U.S. News contributor Nancy Shute.

      Dolphins are social and intelligent, just like humans; they live in extended families and maintain long-term friendships. Now scientists report that female dolphins are more successful at reproduction if they had female friends or relatives who were good at calving, too.

      Earlier studies on what made it more likely that animals would reproduce and successfully rear their young were contradictory. Some said that having good genes was key; strong, fit parents would produce strong, fit offspring. Others said social support, such as aunts, uncles, or unrelated helpers, were key.

      This new study, from researchers who have studied the bottlenose dolphins of Shark Bay, in Western Australia, for 25 years, said that both good genes and social ties are important. The finding, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first time that scientists have tried to gauge the value of genes and social ties in animals living in the natural world. [Read more: Dolphin Moms Do Best With Help From Female Friends.]