Researchers Find Possible Link Between HIV-Positive Mothers and Risk to Their Babies

Researchers at the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Cell and Molecular Biology found concrete evidence that links lower levels of immunity in HIV-negative children with the HIV-positive status of their mothers.

The work comes from the lab of Associate Professor Barbara Lohman-Payne, who has been a member of URI’s Institute for Immunology and Informatics since 2013. Lohman-Payne started in the field of immunology around the discovery of HIV. As part of a research group for the University of Washington, Lohman-Payne lived 12 years in Kenya, where HIV was a daily concern for many. 

“I looked at little babies and how they were surviving,” said Lohman-Payne. “Most people think that if you’re born with a mom with HIV you’re going to get it. But it’s actually really hard to transmit.” 

According to the American Pregnancy Association, only about 25 percent of babies born to an HIV-positive mother will contract the virus. 

“I wanted to know what keeps kids from acquiring HIV and what impact it has on their health,” said Lohman-Payne. “I also wanted to know if these kids had the same immunity as kids that had no exposure to HIV.” 

Lohman-Payne and her team at URI collaborated on the research with colleagues at the University of Nairobi, the University of Washington and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. 

The researchers looked at the T-cell receptors of umbilical cord blood samples from HIV-exposed uninfected infants to samples collected from mother-child pairs unaffected by HIV of the same communities. They found that children born to HIV-positive status mothers, but who did not have the disease themselves, had an increased rate of morbidity, meaning they would get sick more often. The children may have not contracted HIV, but they are more at risk for other common illnesses. 

“My thought was that if there was something making the children more susceptible to infections it had to be a lasting change developed in utero,” said Lohman-Payne. 

Lohman-Payne said that even up to 10 years ago, people thought babies in utero were sterile and that the mother protected them from viruses. 

“Intrauterine life is not sterile, the baby is exposed,” Lohman-Payne said. “The slate is blank when the baby is born, they’ve only seen what is in utero.”

Within the current global population of children born to HIV-positive mothers, it is unknown which of those children are vulnerable. 

“If we can identify which kids get sick, we can help channel resources to those kids,” said  Lohman-Payne.

Lohman-Payne points out that they still cannot say whether there is a correlation between child health status and HIV exposure, they only hypothesize that it could be a biomarker to tell if a child is at risk.