Treatment for HIV has come a long way since the 1980s, but scientists are still working hard to find a cure for the 37 million people around the globe who are infected with the virus. Researchers at Temple University have made an important step toward this goal by safely removing HIV from human immune cells and preventing reinfection.
As they explain in Scientific Reports, the researchers needed to attack the virus where it hides: human DNA. HIV primarily targets immune cells called CD4+ and integrates itself into the cell's DNA. Attacking the virus isn't easy, because destroying the virus can easily destroy the human immune cells as well, which isn't a good outcome.
To target only the virus, the researchers used a gene editing system called CRISPR/Cas9. This scans the DNA of the immune cell until it finds the sequence of viral DNA. It then snips the DNA, removing the virus, and the two ends of human DNA connect back together.
The best part is that this process doesn't harm the cell itself. Once the HIV is taken out, the cell is still able to perform all of its regular functions. What's more, the researchers found that after the virus is gone, cells actually resist re-infection.
This form of gene editing is very attractive compared to current HIV treatments, which require a lifelong dependency on expensive medication to suppress the virus, while not actually getting rid of it.
"Antiretroviral drugs are very good at controlling HIV infection. But patients on antiretroviral therapy who stop taking the drugs suffer a rapid rebound in HIV replication," principal investigator Kamel Khalili explained in a statement.
It's crucial to note that the immune cells used in this study were not inside of an actual person, which means there are a large number of obstacles that need to be addressed before gene editing can be used for treatments. Even using human cells outside of the body, there is some tweaking that needs to be done to make sure CRISPR/Cas9 is perfectly accurate. But this study did show that it is theoretically possible, giving scientists the confidence they need to forge ahead.