For the first time ever scientists have performed a study which appears to have successfully eliminated HIV from living animals.
There’s no doubt HIV has become much more manageable over the years thanks to advancements in treatment, however while anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) can suppress HIV to levels so low it’s undetectable in the blood, until recently there has been no success when it comes to eliminating it completely.
ARVs work best on viruses which are making copies of themselves and infecting healthy cells but HIV can mutate to become resistant to medications. The viruses can also preserve themselves by hiding in lymph and other tissues throughout the body before replicating further when the immune system is weakened.
However, the new study, published earlier this month in Nature Communications, managed to remove all traces of the virus.
Scientists used modified ARV treatment known as long-acting slow-effective release (LASER) antiretroviral therapy (ART) to keep the virus at low activity levels and combined it with a powerful gene-editing technique called CRISPR which snipped out HIV genes from infected cells.
They tested their methods on 29 infected ‘humanised mice’; rodents which were engineered to produce human T cells similar to those found in humans susceptible to HIV.
In various tests given after administering the treatment, scientists could find no traces of HIV in 30 per cent of the mice, suggesting they had effectively eliminated replication-competent HIV DNA from the genomes.
The researchers believe the results prove HIV can be eliminated.
According to TIME, one of the study’s authors, Kamel Khalili, spoke of the results, saying:
This observation is the first step toward showing for the first time, to my knowledge, that HIV is a curable disease.
In a major team effort, researchers @ UNMC & Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University have for the 1st time eliminated HIV from genomes of living animals. This is a critical step toward the development of a possible cure for human HIV infection. https://t.co/vVEKz35EhS pic.twitter.com/nckzCbLqHo
— UNMC Alumni Association (@UNMC_AA) July 12, 2019
LASER ART was reportedly developed by the study’s other lead author, Dr. Howard Gendelman, chair of pharmacology and experimental neuroscience at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. It modifies the ARV drugs so they develop a crystal structure before being encased in fat-soluble particles, allowing them to slip through the membranes of cells in places where HIV tends to hide.
The crystal structure means the drugs are released over a longer period of time, allowing them to continue killing off dormant viruses as they start to emerge and replicate for months rather than days or weeks.
CRISPR then worked to splice out HIV from any infected circulating cells which the anti-HIV drugs missed.
Commenting on the process, Khalili said:
Over the years, we have looked at HIV as an infectious disease. But once it gets into the cell, it’s no longer an infectious disease but becomes a genetic disease because the viral genome is incorporated into the host genome.
In order to cure the disease, we need a genetic strategy. Gene editing gives us the opportunity to eliminate viral DNA from host chromosomes without hurting the host genome.
To further assess the effectiveness of the treatment the researchers took immune cells from the treated animals and transferred them to healthy animals to see if they developed HIV infection from any virus that may have remained, but incredibly none did.
The team is reportedly already testing the therapy in non-human primates. If they find the same positive results it could open the door for human testing.
IOL report Steven Deeks, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco who has worked extensively on HIV, admitted the use of gene editing to remove HIV from a live animal is a notable step forward, however he cautioned using the technique on humans would be far more challenging.
While there’s still a way to go in terms of curing HIV altogether, the results of the study are certainly a positive step.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.