Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle have discovered that HIV's origin can be traced back 5 to 12 million years. That would contradict previous findings that suggested that HIV - or its forbearers - have been in existence for the past tens of thousands of years.

HIV affects 34 million people worldwide, and the illness has baffled researchers unable to find a cure. During the 20th century, the virus appeared in humans after it made the leap from primates to people. According to the BBC, scientists have long known that the virus's "cousins" have circulated in primates for thousands of years. However, some experts believe that may be a severe underestimate.

Researchers Alex Compton and Michael Emerman studied the genetic signatures of a variety of primate species, including chimpanzees, gorillas, macaques and orangutans. By studying the changes in their genes, researchers were able to come to the conclusion that lentiviruses - HIV's viral cousins - arose as far back as 12 million years ago.

Dr. Sam Wilson, from the MRC-University of Glasgow Center for Virus Research in the United Kingdom, who was unaffiliated with the study, said to the BBC that better understanding the origins of the virus could help researchers understand the inner workings of HIV. That enhanced understanding would, he said, hopefully ultimately turn into therapy.

Indeed, scientists appear to be getting close to finding better treatments for HIV and the condition that it directly causes, AIDS. Currently, the disease is treated with a cocktail of antiretroviral therapy that targets the virus at various points in its development. While the drugs have drastically improved the lifespan and quality of life of individuals with HIV, they are costly and come with side effects. Medical Daily previously reported that Australian researchers appear to have made cells HIV-resistant, which would spell a cure for AIDS.

The study was published in the open-access journal PLoS One Pathogens.