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Can an ancient virus cause today’s addictions? - (10/2/2018)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

Viv, the pharmacy technician, ran excitedly into the pharmacy. “Did you see that new study that showed how the AIDS virus, which infected cavemen, could be the cause of addiction in humans today?” she asked the pharmacist. The pharmacist told Viv that he had read the study but she got the basic concept confused. The 2018 study to which Viv was referring revealed that a retrovirus-infected archaic subspecies of humans called the Neanderthals, which is now part of human genetic material – called the genome – in 5% to 10% of all people. These present-day humans appear to be those most at risk for addictive behavior.

Researchers studied drug addicts in two locations and found they were up to about 3 times more likely than the general population to have remnants of this retrovirus – called the HK2 virus – within a particular gene in their DNA. The team of scientists who conducted the study observed the virus in 34% of drug addicts tested in Glasgow, Scotland, compared to 9.5% of that city’s local population, and in 14% of Greek patients, compared to 6% of that country's population. The retrovirus dates back at least to Neanderthals (circa ~430,000 years to 40,000 years ago), and is present in the RASGRF2 gene, which a researcher called the "pleasure gene" because it increases the activity of dopamine in the brain. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is designed to give a reward to life-sustaining activities like eating healthy food, having sex, drinking water, and being held in nurturing relationships so that you will keep doing these healthy things over and over again. Some antidepressants block the reuptake of dopamine in the brain so that a person can feel better. However, if there is a corruption within the gene itself, as in the case of the RASGRF2 gene, the reward center can lead a person into life-threatening activities such as alcoholism and opioid addiction. 

“But isn’t a retrovirus the same as the human Immunodeficiency virus?” asked Viv. “Yes,” replied the pharmacist. “But not all retroviruses are HIV.” The pharmacist explained that a virus consists of a protein capsule with a nucleic acid inside. Every form of life has a nucleic acid in its nuclei. The nucleic acid could either be DNA or RNA (DNA is what we use for genetic material). If the virus uses DNA, the DNA can directly insert into the host genome and start producing exact clones of itself. Examples of DNA viruses include hepatitis B virus and herpes zoster virus which causes shingles. Conversely, retroviruses use RNA that cannot work in a host cell without being translated to DNA, which is then inserted into the host genome. However, the process of reverse transcription – RNA changing to DNA – is imprecise and errors can be made. Hence, many of the "offspring" will be vastly different from the original. This is why HIV is so difficult to treat, and why a flu vaccine does not always work. Both are retroviruses and evolve faster than science can inhibit them.

Viv asked the pharmacist, “Do you think one day a vaccine could be developed to prevent addiction?" “It is possible but we are a long way from that,” he replied. “In the meantime, just knowing that a person is at high risk for addiction because of his genetic makeup could be enough warning to get that person into a program to educate him about the possibility of addiction.”  

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com. Read more at www.rx-press.com  


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