A team of researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia have used a gene-editing tool called the CRISPR/Cas9 to clear every visible trace of the HIV-1 genome from a patient’s infected cells.
The CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool is conventionally used for getting rid of heritable genetic diseases or to add new genes. However this research has shown that it could be used for more than that- the elimination of viruses that have their genetic codes planted in the host’s cells.
These viruses are called Retroviruses. Unlike conventional viruses, Retroviruses have copies of their genomes (all the DNA information including the genes) inserted into the host’s cells in order to clone itself.
HIV is an example of a retrovirus and in order to have it treated, HIV patients are required to take antiretroviral drugs. Although these drugs have proven effective in controlling HIV, patients who stop taking these drugs usually suffer a setback. It becomes worse if the treatment is stopped, the HIV becomes more pronounced, weakens the immune system thereby leading to the contraction of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Scientists have tried to remove HIV from the CD4+ T-cells, a white blood cell that fights infection, but all to no avail.
Kamel Khalili who is a geneticist, as well as other colleagues from the Temple University were able to extract HIV-infected T-cells from a patients body. They did this using a modified version of the CRISPR/Cas9 whose target was the HIV-1 DNA.
This was able to remove every trace of the virus’ DNA from the T-cells and permanently so. Also, with the genetic system still present in the cell, it was able to stave off infections from the unedited cells.
The scientists made no records of side effects or toxicity, and the edited cells seemed to be growing healthily and functioning normally.
Khalili said in a statement that the research “demonstrates the effectiveness of our gene editing system in eliminating HIV from the DNA of CD4 T-cells and, by introducing mutations into the viral genome, permanently inactivating its replication,”
“Further, they show that the system can protect cells from reinfection and that the technology is safe for the cells, with no toxic effects.”
Notwithstanding the ability of this gene-editing technology being used as a treatment of HIV, the researchers who published their findings in the Nature Scientific Reports. have said that it might take years before this comes to fruition.