HIV treatments can lead to premature ageing, according to research.
It is believed that this is why people given the drugs can sometimes show signs of heart disease, dementia and frailty at an early age.
Researchers have discovered that the drugs, known as nucleoside analogue reverse-transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs), can cause significant damage to cells over time.
As part of the study, researchers examined muscle cells from HIV-infected adults, some of whom had previously taken NRTIs.
They found that patients who had used NRTIs even a decade before had damaged important “powerplants” within cells, known as mitochondria. These results were similar to those of a healthy older person.
Mitochondria, which supply cells with energy, have their own DNA that accumulates mutations over the course of a lifetime.
Lead researcher Professor Patrick Chinnery, from the University of Newcastle, said: “The DNA in our mitochondria gets copied throughout our lifetimes and, as we age, naturally accumulates errors. So over the space of, say, 10 years, a person’s mitochondrial DNA may have accumulated the same amount of errors as a person who has naturally aged 20 or 30 years.
“What is surprising, though, is that patients who came off the medication many years ago may still be vulnerable to these changes.”
Doctors at HIV clinics had reported seeing patients who were successfully treated but showed signs of being much older than their years, said Prof Chinnery, whose findings are published in the journal Nature Genetics.