These strange blobs are clusters of immune T cells infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) – the virus that causes AIDS. The infected cells fuse together, forming large structures known as syncitia. Scientists have discovered that one of the genes in HIV encodes a protein called Env, which encourages the fusion of infected cells. But although this cellular get-together certainly happens with cells grown in plastic dishes in the lab, it’s not clear whether it happens in infected patients. This idea was controversial for a long time, and although there was some evidence that certain types of HIV-infected cells could club together inside the body, T cells couldn’t. The latest research suggests that syncitia do form when T cells are infected with HIV inside a person. But rather than being round blobs like these, they take on a more elongated, spidery shape, which helps to spread the infection to nearby tissues.
Written by Kat Arney
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