Influence of Common Mucosal Co-Factors on HIV Infection in the Female Genital Tract

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Women constitute almost half of HIV-infected population globally, and the female genital tract (FGT) accounts for approximately 40% of all new HIV infections worldwide. The FGT is composed of upper and lower parts, distinct in their morphological and functional characteristics. Co-factors in the genital microenvironment, such as presence of hormones, semen, and other sexually transmitted infections, can facilitate or deter HIV infection and play a critical role in determining susceptibility to HIV. In this review, we examine some of these co-factors and their potential influence. Presence of physical and chemical barriers such as epithelial tight junctions, mucus, and anti-microbial peptides can actively block and inhibit viral replication, presenting a significant deterrent to HIV. Upon exposure, HIV and other pathogens first encounter the genital epithelium: cells that express a wide repertoire of pattern recognition receptors that can recognize and directly initiate innate immune responses. These and other interactions in the genital tract can lead to direct and indirect inflammation and enhance the number of local target cells, immune activation, and microbial translocation, all of which promote HIV infection and replication. Better understanding of the dynamics of HIV transmission in the female genital tract would be invaluable for improving the design of prophylactic strategies against HIV.

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