Researchers at Stanford University have created HIV-resistant T-cells, a breakthrough that, if proven successful in humans, could potentially stop the virus from developing into AIDS.
The discovery was announced in Tuesday’s issue of Molecular Therapy, and according to researchers, could replace lifelong drug treatments and protect the immune systems of those infected.
A Stanford press release explained the process:
A new study describes the use of a kind of molecular scissors to cut and paste a series of HIV-resistant genes into T-cells. […] By inactivating a receptor gene and inserting additional anti-HIV genes, the virus was blocked from entering the cells, thus preventing it from destroying the immune system.
HIV works by entering and ultimately killing an individual’s T-cells, leading to a collapse of the immune system. Researchers were quick to point out that the therapy is not a cure for HIV, but rather a method to make patients immune to it.
“Once [a person contracts HIV], they become susceptible to all sorts of infections and cancers, and that’s what kills the patient ultimately–not the virus,” explained the study’s principal researcher, Dr. Matthew Porteus, to The Huffington Post. “So our goal is to build an immune system that is resistant to the virus.”
In theory, Porteus and his team could replace a percentage of a patient’s T-cells with the HIV-resistant cells. As the HIV-sensitive cells would die off, the resistant cells would reproduce, eventually creating an immune system of entirely HIV-resistant cells.
“The body has an incredible way of balancing itself,” explained Porteus. “The virus would have no more cells to infect.”
Currently, doctors use drug therapy to help achieve this affect. But because the HIV virus is notorious for mutating, patients must take dozens of pills a day for the rest of their lives. Should the gene therapy prove successful, the pills–and their sometimes unbearable side effects–would no longer be necessary.
“If you put one roadblock in front of HIV, it is very good about getting around that,” said Porteus. “What we’ve done in our study is shown that we can add multiple layers of protection, creating what is essentially a complete resistance to HIV.”
The Stanford breakthrough is one of several increasingly positive studies in the fight against HIV. In 2007, researchers in Berlin completed a stem cell transplant on an HIV-positive man that appeared to cure him of the virus. Dubbed the “Berlin Patient,” Timothy Ray Brown is still HIV-free four years later.
“The obvious question is why we don’t we do that for everyone,” said Porteus. He explained that the conditions for such a phenomenon are so rare, that a stem cell cure might not be practical on a large scale.
“But if we can create immune systems that are protected against HIV, you could reach a state where you had a fully-functioning immune system with a low level of HIV infection that wouldn’t cause any problems,” he added.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, researchers plan to conduct more lab work before starting animal testing. The team hopes to begin testing on humans within the next five years.