Retroviruses belong to the Retroviridae family of viruses. Their genetic material consists of ribonucleic acid (RNA), instead of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Viruses of this type also contain reverse transcriptase. Retroviruses are known to lead to certain types of cancers in both humans and animals, as well as a range of viral infections. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), is one example.
These viruses are unique in that they reproduce by transcribing themselves into DNA. Reverse transcriptase, an enzyme within a retrovirus, makes it possible for the RNA to perform as a template of sorts for the transcription process. Once transcription has taken place, the viral DNA gains access to the DNA of a cell, reproducing along with the cell and its offspring. Within the cell’s offspring, referred to as daughter cells, the viral DNA creates RNA replicas of itself. Finally, these replicas leave the daughter cells after coating themselves with a protein.
Retroviruses reverse the normal cell process, which uses RNA to synthesize DNA. By reversing this process, they take up permanent residence in the genetic material of the infected cell. In some cases, these viruses destroy the cells they change; such is the case with HIV. Others cause cells to become cancerous. This is what occurs with certain types of leukemia.
Viruses in this family are prone to mutation, and for this reason, often become resistant to antiviral drugs within a relatively short period of time. This level of mutability is one of the reasons cited for the difficulty scientists face in trying to develop a safe and effective HIV vaccine.
Antibiotics are not effective against retroviruses. They are helpful for battling bacterial-based infections, but are useless against viruses. Instead, anti-viral medications must be developed and used to combat them. Vaccination can be used to prevent diseases caused by viruses, including retroviruses. Unfortunately, developing effective vaccines is complicated work that may take years, or even generations, to accomplish.
Despite the fact that retroviruses are indicated in some potentially deadly diseases, they are vulnerable to something as simple as ordinary soap and water. Handwashing can render them inactive. Physical barriers can be useful in preventing their spread, as well. Such barriers include condoms, rubber gloves, and facial masks.