Is Gene Editing Our Best Weapon Against HIV?

A new study revealed that gene editing may help alter replication of the viral DNA of HIV.

In an earlier report, researchers from the University of California identified and used a novel genetic tool, CRISPR-Cas9 in tracking and targeting the movement of the messenger RNA in living cells. Further studies were conducted to identify the tool's scientific uses.

While antiretroviral drugs are effective in suppressing the replication process of the AIDS virus, the human T-lymphocytes or the immune system cells retain the memory of the virus. As soon as medications are stopped, the virus can replicate again. Antiretroviral drugs have side effects and they are not a cure for the disease.

The new study showed that gene editing can help remove these "memory" so they can no longer reproduce even if medication stops. With the use of the CRISPR/Cas9, scientists can cut out the viral DNA and eventually cure the disease.

CRISPR is able to recognize a particular DNA segment and snip it out of the infected human cells. Using a natural repair system, the cells then stitch back the ends of the genome. This procedure was found to be effective in removing the virus from the cells.

The study lead author Kamel Khalili said that the excision molecules that his team developed were able to stop the virus replication in almost 90 percent of infected human T-cells in the laboratory. The procedure did not only remove the infection but it also rendered protection for the cell.

Although no infected human was cured during the study, Khalili and his team remains positive that gene-editing technology can emerge as the new cure for HIV. The team proved the procedure in cell cultures; they are now in the process of testing it in animal studies, and hope that if it becomes successful, clinical trials will follow in the next two to three years.

"It's an exciting time and the reason is the technologies are available and the methods are in place and our knowledge has increased and hopefully there will be funding to take us toward this exciting moment toward the cure of the disease," said Khalili.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Gene editing is posed to be the treatment of choice, if clinical studies would be successful, as it has numerous advantages compared to antiretroviral therapies available today. Antiretroviral drugs can cause Alzheimer's disease, early aging, and heart diseases.

At present, there are over 1.2 million people living in the United States has HIV infection, and about 12.8 percent of them are unaware that they have the disease. Incidence rates continue to rise at an alarming rate, with 50,000 become infected with HIV every year. In 2012, an estimated 13,000 HIV infected individuals died from the disease and its complications.

Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases | Flickr

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