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Open Access Commentary

Commentary on the role of treatment-related HIV compensatory mutations on increasing virulence: new discoveries twenty years since the clinical testing of protease inhibitors to block HIV-1 replication

Eric J Arts

Author affiliations

Division of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine, Department of Medicine, School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Citation and License

BMC Medicine 2012, 10:114  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-10-114

Published: 3 October 2012


Approximately 20 years has passed since the first human trial with HIV-1 protease inhibitors. Protease inhibitors set the stage for combination therapy in the mid-1990s but are now rarely used in first-line combination therapy and reserved for salvage therapy. Initially, resistance to protease inhibitors was deemed unlikely due to the small enzymatic target with limited genetic diversity, the extended drug binding site in protease, and the need to cleave multiple sites in the HIV-1 precursor proteins. However, a highly protease inhibitor-resistant virus can emerge during treatment and is found to harbor a collection of primary drug-resistant mutations near the drug and/or substrate binding site as well as secondary mutations that compensate for fitness loss. For years, the research field has debated the impact of these secondary mutations on the emergence rates of high-level protease inhibitor resistance. A recent study poses a more pertinent question, related to disease progression in patients newly infected with a virus harboring secondary protease inhibitor-associated polymorphisms. The authors of that study show that increased rates of disease progression, inferred by increased viral loads and decreased CD4 cell counts, correlate with a fitness score of the infecting virus. The modeled fitness scores increased with an accumulation of these secondary protease inhibitors mutations, and not because of any one specific polymorphism.

Antiretroviral drugs; drug resistance; CD4 cell counts; fitness; human immunodeficiency virus; protease inhibitors; viral load; virulence