Monday, October 31, 2005

Black Death the Cure for AIDS?

Do the descendents of certain plague survivors have a gene conferring immunity to HIV? Such is the startling conclusion of Dr. Stephen O'Brien of the National Institutes of Health in Washington D.C.

Local tales in the small, central-England village of Eyam tell befuddling stories of plague survivors who had close contact with the bacterium but never caught the disease. Dr. O'Brien's with HIV and the mutated form of the gene CCR5, called "delta 32," led him to Eyam. In 1996, research showed that delta 32 prevents HIV from entering human cells and infecting the body. O'Brien thought this principle could be applied to the plague bacteria, which affects the body in a similar manner. To determine whether the Eyam plague survivors may have carried delta 32, O'Brien tested the DNA of their modern-day descendents. What he found out was startling ...
Read the whole thing.


Knucklehead said...

I'm a loss regarding why the village of Eyam is considered "special" in this investigation.

From the linked article:

A year later, the first outsiders ventured into Eyam, expecting a ghost town. Yet, miraculously, half the town had survived. How did so many villagers live through the most devastating disease known to man?

I'm no plague expert but IIRC from what I have read, The Black Death killed roughly 1/3 of the European population. Entire towns and villages were wiped out. But clearly that was not always the case. The major cities of the day suffered as high as 50% deathrates. This is, apparently, identical to Eyam.

Why not look at Marsailles or London? What did I miss?

ambisinistral said...


If I read it right, I think Eyam was of importance because it had remained relatively isolated, at least from a view of genetics, over the centuries.

The present population was largely descendents of the older plague ravanged town.

chuck said...


I suspect that the cities had much more mixing and immigration which would dilute the genes. In contrast, the genetic pool in some English villages has been remarkably stable. ISTR a case where a body from Celtic times was exhumed from a bog where it had been preserved and its DNA compared to that of the inhabitants of a nearby village. The match was exceedingly good. I can't say more precisely than that because I don't remember the details.

In any case, there is a gene, maybe the same one, that is fairly prevalent in the European population but not elsewhere. The hypothesis is (was?) that it was due to selection during the plague. I wish I knew more about the details, maybe someday someone will publish a book setting forth all these interesting little snippets from current research.

RogerA said...

IIRC Chuck is correct--and I can't for the life of me cite the source, but this was an area of the British Isles that had little mixing and the majority of the population were direct decendants of the body that was some 3 thousand years old.

I think that one significant conclusion is that we are only coming to recognize how significant the human genome project will be--the implications for our civilization are striking, and we are only at the very beginning point. Which, of course, raises another point of ethical importance: just how SHOULD we proceed?

Knucklehead said...

Got it, should have read further in the "clues" stuff. I guess it was the Kentucky of the British Isles. Not all aspects of a thin gene broth are to be avoided, heh?

chuck said...

Not all aspects of a thin gene broth are to be avoided, heh?

Iceland has the same "problem". I think they see it as an opportunity to set themselves up as center of genetic studies and sell access to genealogical information. I don't know how good their records are; that was evidently another important aspect of the Eyam study.

Peter UK said...

There was a TV documentary concerning this a few years back.
IIRC An homosexual who had seen most of his friends die of AIDS.began wondering why he had not been infected.Either he contacted the researcher or vice versa who were studying epidemiology and immunology.
It was apparent that a community with a stable population,same names in the Parish registers and on gravestones for centuries,which had withstood an epidemic was essential for research purposes.Eyam was such a place,it had avoided the plague which had ravaged most of the large, towns and cities,but a consignment of cloth from London, which was infested with fleas, brought the plague to Eyam.
The population voluntarily sealed itself off from the surrounding settlements until the outbreak abated.
Some of my ancestors
are buried there

RogerA said...

PeterUK--thanks for the link!! absolutely fascinating. When the dust settles, I am sure the readers of this blog would love to find out more about your ancestors!