One of the diseases that has haunted human civilization for ages and has given a tough fight to medical science is HIV. A cure for HIV is not yet a reality, but advances in science and technology have made the idea of an eventual cure more promising than ever. This article provides insight into some of the most recent studies involving techniques that might help to treat or even eliminate the virus from the body.
CRISPR Cas-9 Gene Editing
CRISPR-Cas9, discovered by scientists at MIT and Harvard, has been successfully tested as a means to cut out pieces of DNA in cell cultures permanently.
The technique has already been used to edit pig and human genomes and is believed that it could be used to permanently alter genes in immune cells to make them resistant to HIV infection. Temple University researchers have proposed a similar technique using CRISPR to remove latent HIV infection from human genomes.
Gene therapy technique is an experimental methodology that aims to treat or work as a cure for HIV by altering the genetic material, in this case, the DNA sequence of a living organism.
A new gene introduced into cells can either compensate for a mutated gene (gene augmentation) or completely replace it (gene-replacement therapy). Ex vivo gene therapy removes cells from the patient’s body, genetically modifying them and then returning them to the patient’s body.
This approach has already been used in patients with X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency—also known as ‘Boy in the Bubble Syndrome ‘—who were successfully treated with genetically modified stem cells to produce functional immune cells.
However, this technique is still far from becoming a viable option for HIV treatment since only certain blood cell types can be removed and cultured, and there are concerns about the safety of introducing genetically altered cells back into the body.
Antiviral Heat Therapy
Antiviral heat therapy uses thermal energy (heat) to destroy viruses and retroviruses such as HIV.
The technology works by agitating viral DNA until it separates from its protein coat, which takes much less energy than heating it to 100°C, as would be required in traditional pasteurization—one of many reasons this method is believed to be safer than other approaches that use high temperatures or harsh chemicals.
Several studies have demonstrated that heating blood samples to 60°C for at least 30 minutes is enough to kill HIV while preserving other blood components. Current experiments are using this method on milk and oral fluids such as saliva, with encouraging results.
Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs)
Transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs), like CRISPR-Cas9, are gene-editing tools that can target specific areas of the genome where changes or deletions will prevent the transcription of viral RNA.
TALENs were first used in research by scientists at Temple University who demonstrated their ability to excise proviral DNA from cultured cells infected with an HIV-derived lentivirus.
Antiretroviral Therapy Using HIV-Resistant Stem Cells
In a recent preclinical study, researchers from Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University showed that transplanting hematopoietic stem cells engineered to resist HIV infection effectively protected monkeys from otherwise lethal doses of SIV, the simian form of the virus.
The next step for these scientists will be clinical trials in humans under the leadership of renowned scientist Carl June who has successfully treated several cancer patients with gene therapy.